I was fortunate enough to interview him for the June 2016 issue of JerseyMan, and he couldn’t have been cooler, giving little ol’ me almost an hour and a half of his valuable time and even sharing a Firesign Theater reference. You can view the PDF of the article here.
The World’s 7th Most Interesting Man
John O’Hurley doesn’t sit still very often, but when he does, he has an extraordinary life to reflect on.
The first time John O’Hurley read a Seinfeld script, he instantly saw the genius of the Show About Nothing. Even if he didn’t consider it genius at the time.
O’Hurley had to be nudged to play off-the-reservation catalogue owner J. Peterman…a role that, given his own eccentric demeanor and storytelling ability, he seemed born to play. When he gave in and read the script, he couldn’t believe that Seinfeld was the number one show on TV. Because the show didn’t read funny.
Imagine reading a classic Seinfeld dialogue and it becomes obvious what O’Hurley means.
“It was the un-funniest show to read,” the portrayer of the now iconic character remembers. “There’s no setup. If I showed you, say, a Golden Girls script, you can see, setup setup setup, punchline, setup setup setup, punchline. Generations of script writers lived off of that form.
“Then Seinfeld came in, it grew out of standup comedy, observational humor. It was basically the notion of being in an elevator, that is New York, the sense of small spaces and rudeness and everything is always on edge, relationships or whatever. It was all about conversation, because everybody talks in New York. That’s why Peterman existed, because he was not only about language, he was about the long form. The writers got to write monologues every week, rather than writing one or two lines for each character.”
If you’ve ever looked at a J. Peterman catalogue (yes, J. Peterman is a real person), you can see why it appealed to sitcom writers whose strength was dialogue. A typical entry reads like this one, for the “Grace Under Pressure” cotton T-shirt: “MI6 operatives sat at noirish watering holes with Gestapo and Portuguese secret police, all waiting for the other to reveal the whereabouts of the Nazis’ cache of gold or an allied shipping lane. Wealthy refugees negotiated the sale of their art collections. Prostitutes doubled as informants. You’ve heard of Casino Royale? That’s this place.”
That’s the real J. Peterman. It was as if the character’s lines wrote themselves.
“They wanted him to sound the way the catalogue was written,” O’Hurley recalls. “They didn’t even have the full script written, because it was the most disorganized show on television. So all they had was the catalogue and a couple of lines. I’m going through this and thinking, OK, this is 40s radio drama and bad Charles Kuralt. So it had this sort of Centurion poet standing on a cliff type of feel about everything. Even a walk to the men’s room was an adventure. (imitating Peterman voice) ‘I have no idea what I’m going to find serving a basic desire!’”
The J. Peterman catalogue not only still exists, it’s part owned by O’Hurley now. The two men have walked on Madison Avenue together and heard New Yorkers shout “Peterman!” at O’Hurley, ignoring the in-the-flesh Peterman.
One of the catalogue’s newest offerings is the Urban Sombrero, in an ongoing and humorous Kickstarter campaign that has raised $96,000 as of this writing.
In case you haven’t seen that episode, the Urban Sombrero is an invention Elaine conjures up when the chronically unstable Peterman breaks down and runs off to Burma, leaving the company operations in Elaine’s hands.
The Urban Sombrero…a hat that combines “the spirit of Old Mexico with a little big-city panache”…turns out to be a colossal flop, to the point where Elaine overhears men on the subway talk about how the Urban Sombrero ruined their lives. In the show, Peterman himself reacts to the idea with similar distress, muttering “the horror…the horror”.
Indeed, if you were working for a clothing firm and heard someone suggest the idea of an Urban Sombrero, you might imagine you were in a Seinfeld episode. It took 20 years of cajoling from the fictional Peterman to persuade the actual Peterman to make this essential skypiece available.
What caused the eventual change of heart?
“I think he finally realized that at some point he was going to have to embrace the Seinfeld audience of 80+ million and try to draw them across the aisle into the Peterman world. There was a little bit of unconscious reluctance to accept them. When you think about it, I’ve basically stolen his identity; I’ve become his company. All of a sudden this poor man has nothing left, he’s lost his identity. He never understood, I don’t think, the Seinfeld phenomenon.”
Pop culture reverence aside, for us Philly area folks, O’Hurley points out the advantages of the Urban Sombrero as an ideal Jersey Shore accessory.
“It’s the absolute answer to the SPF problem. When you can’t decide between 15, 30, 60 or 70 and you go, oh my God, what do I choose? The Urban Sombrero. And not only that, it says, I think I’m gonna take a nap. Why not do it with a little bit of a panache?”
O’Hurley spends time in the Philadelphia area each year, hosting the National Dog Show in Oaks that has become almost as much of a Thanksgiving Day tradition as the Macy’s parade. The National Dog Show was created way back in 1879 by the Kennel Club of Philadelphia; O’Hurley has been hosting it since 2002.
Like the Peterman character, it seemed an obvious choice to make O’Hurley the emcee of the show. Coupled with his game show host experience, he has an exceptionally thoughtful appreciation for canines. He’s authored three books about dogs and their impact on our lives; “It’s Okay To Miss The Bed On The First Jump” is a New York Times bestseller, and “The Perfect Dog”, a children’s poem, has been adapted into a children’s musical that is now part of National Dog Show Week.
“If you have a dog in the room,” O’Hurley relates, “everyone comes and pets the dog. If there’s a dog in an elevator, everyone is looking at the dog. Whatever the natural behavior of the dog is, everyone is going, awww. They calm us down; they round the edges in our lives. They take the brittleness out of things. That’s what dogs do.
“If you’re around 2,000 of them, and they don’t care if they win, everybody else seems to be happy so they’re happy. And they’re appreciated, and they know it, and there’s a sense of energy that they know that something important is going on. All of those things lead to just a great environment for everybody.
“It is the happiest day of the year. It’s as simple as that.”
The well-traveled host not only says nothing but nice things about visiting Philadelphia, he can do so without even dropping the name of an iconic sandwich shop.
“My favorite thing about Philly is the authenticity of the history there. The actual documents, walking around and actually being in arm’s reach from some of the most important legislation that was ever done in this country, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
“I did the musical ‘1776’ many times, and I think that every time I pass that building, that they all stood in and sat in, and how sweaty that must have been and how miserable they must have been, and yet to put their names on any one of those documents was basically signing a lynching mob. I think of that every time I pass that building…my goodness, the courage they had to do what they did.
“On top of that, I love walking up and down the streets, and seeing the preservation of the areas. I love staying in some of the little boutique hotels. We love Oaks too, mostly because my wife refers to Nieman Marcus as the mothership out there in the King of Prussia Mall, which is the best place in the world to shop.”
You don’t have to be a Seinfeld fan or a National Dog Show viewer to have seen John O’Hurley’s visage frequently.
He is a theater star who has played King Arthur in Monty Python’s Spam-A-Lot and currently still plays Billy Flynn in the long running musical Chicago. On stage, he possesses a fine singing voice. Tom Williams of Chicago Critic opined it best: “John O’Hurley brings a big voice and a commanding presence.”
He is a self-taught classical pianist who has released several acclaimed CDs, and is now starring in his own creation called A Man With Standards. “It’s my one-man show of the music of the period when I grew up, a period of time when men had standards. It’s basically piano, and I expanded it all the way up to a full orchestra. It’s fun. I have all these melodies in my head, I’ve got to get rid of them somehow. It’s a dangerous place up there.”
He has ballroom dancing skills too; he made it to the finals of the first season of Dancing With The Stars, and winning a dance-off following a hotly disputed (to say the least) loss in the original final.
And he was probably the most elegant host of Family Feud in the history of the show.
“I’d worked with them on a show previous, called To Tell The Truth. You remember, will the real so-and-so please stand up. They were looking for a new host for Family Feud and I said yes. It’s a different style of hosting; with To Tell The Truth I sat down, I had a nice little thing to read with a story, panelists, that type of stuff. With Family Feud, there’s no script, you are literally out there hoping the net will appear.
“That was when I began what I call the prayer. I say God, let me be surprised. That’s all I say, and that’s what I say before I go on stage. It relaxes me to say that I’m not in control of this thing, so I can go out and relax. It was like hosting a cocktail party, we really cared about the fact that all these people came to your party.”
Last but not at all least, he’s the father of the first ever third-grader Vice President of his school. According to O’Hurley, at the age of nine, his son had already mastered the art of persuading people to eschew politics as usual…which at the school meant voting for a sixth-grader…and won in a landslide.
On his Twitter account, John O’Hurley proclaims himself to be the World’s 7th Most Interesting Man. When asked who #1-6 are, his answer is no one specific. Just that there’s probably only six people in the world having a better day than he is.
It’s a humorous worldview of a good-natured optimist whose attitude has taken him far. But truthfully, it’s a challenge to think of many people who have led more interesting lives. Not many of us have been a recurring character in the most popular sitcom in history, hosted national game shows, emceed a National Dog Show, made it to the finals of Dancing With The Stars, written three books, played leads in traveling hit musicals, and released several CDs of classical piano music.
Someone hosting a success seminar could paraphrase that old cliché: You have the same 24 hours as John O’Hurley. Or they could attend one of O’Hurley’s own motivational speeches; he does that too. He calls his presentation The Peterman Guide to Living an Extraordinary Life.
“I wake up every day with this goal: I have to find a way to stay relevant every single day of my life. And what I live by is this premise, and this is what I speak about: you have two choices in life. You can have an ordinary life, or you can have an extraordinary life, and it has nothing to do with power or money; it has everything to do with the power of your choices.
“God speaks through imagination. He puts pictures in your mind of what you’re supposed to be doing. Your rational mind knows everything you’re afraid of, and it has an agenda, but your imagination? No agenda. It only knows the best of what you are capable of, and it always pushes you forward to the next thing you’re supposed to be doing.
“I’ll talk to hedge fund guys on Wall Street, two thousand people in the room, and every one of them is taking notes, and I love that. And I say, if you do not believe that what you imagine has value, what I would ask you to do right now is put your pencils down, get up out of your chair, drop to the floor, curl yourself in a little fetal ball, and wait there for the sweet embrace of death. Because you will not improve your life one iota unless you value what you imagine, not what you know.
“And everyone picks up their pencils and starts writing again.”
“I’m very, very lucky, I’ve been in the right place at the right time, but all of those things I did, I did because my imagination said, I’m supposed to do this.”
With all respect to Jonathan Goldsmith, it’s a shame that O’Hurley didn’t star in the ‘Most Interesting Man In The World’ spots. The Dos Equis people would have had a lot to work with.
“He was once asked to star on Seinfeld…and proclaimed the script unfunny.”
The Peterman Monologues
For many years the Seinfeld audience didn’t get to see much of J. Peterman at his maniacal finest…delivering a lengthy monologue.
“Every show was ten minutes too long,” O’Hurley says. “The first thing to go, we’ll cut the Peterman monologue. These things that I’d spend two and half hours on. I used to orchestrate them musically, because having studied opera I could play with my voice, and I would take it and rise (raises pitch of voice) and then hold, and then fall (drops pitch of voice).
“I would do that because this man was always a piece of walking poetry. Mr. Magoo-style poetry, but poetry nonetheless. He was a walking literary time bomb all the time.”
O’Hurley’s all-time favorite was in an episode where he incorrectly suspects that Elaine might be having a fling with a co-worker, and he encourages them with tickets to a circus. He still remembers the monologue verbatim:
“Don’t worry, Elaine. I too am no stranger to love on the clock. As a young man, my father apprenticed me to a honey factory in Belize. The chief beekeeper was this horrible hag of a woman with nulled teeth and a giant wart that she called a nose. She was not attractive, even by backwoods standards. But love is truly blind, Elaine, and as the days went on, working closer and closer together, that sweet smell of honey in the air; I knew I had to have that horrible creature. And I did. So you and Bob have a good time tonight.”
It may be an exception to the show’s script not reading funny, but that classic, sadly, was also cut from the show. O’Hurley says you can watch some of the monologues on the Seinfeld DVDs.
“They put a good many of them back in, because they’re funny. I actually hosted the presentation of the DVDs. They decided when I talked about that, oh we gotta go back and add that.
“It was just lunatic stuff.”
The ‘Dancing With The Stars’ Debacle
Most Dancing With The Stars fans remember O’Hurley from the finals of the first season, where he lost to General Hospital star Kelly Monaco in a firestorm controversy that resulted in a dance-off. O’Hurley and his partner, Charlotte Jorgensen, won the rematch easily.
O’Hurley was, in fact, the first ever contestant secured for the hit show.
“I’m the guy that would go to a wedding reception with a glass of wine, and as soon as the music and the dancing started I’d go back and raise a glass and say, ‘Knock yourselves out, Shriners!’ But again, I go back to imagination. I said, I’m 50 years old and I don’t know how to ballroom dance. Shame on me. So I said, all right, I’m gonna do it. I said who else have you got? They said, now that we have you, we can get Evander Holyfield.
“All of a sudden it made so much sense to me. That they were just using this series to give America what they’ve been asking for, for more than two decades: the Evander Holyfield vs. John O’Hurley matchup. Finally! On the level playing field of ballroom dancing! It’s clear as day to me.
“I took him out in the third round with my foxtrot. All it took was my foxtrot and he was gone.”
The finals were a bit more of a mess.
“They boxed themselves into a corner with Kelly Monaco. Because she was on an ABC show, and in 2005 all of that stuff was brand new, active stuff, sign on to the network. Well she’s on a show and she’s got 3 million followers on the website. So she won the online vote every week. There were people that would call, but that was only the hour after the show, and then all week long you could vote online as many times as you wanted to, but you had to have an ABC password to vote.
“You see the dilemma. So when we did the finals and she fell three times during her final dance and I had gotten two 10s and a 9, they had to give her three 10s because she had won the online vote from the previous week. My partner was through the roof. She was so angry about that, that it was never about the dancing. We didn’t have to say anything about it, there were 43,000 complaints the day after. They ended up doing a two-hour dance-off, and I ended up winning.
“I got to rule the roost on that, because I said basically, you screwed up your own series, I don’t give a rat’s a**. I said, ‘I want you to give Kelly’s charity and my charity, the winner’s share, $150,000 or something like that.’”
As O’Hurley often says, you have no idea when you do things the good that’s capable of coming from it.
“We finished it, we won, yadda yadda. We all got the $150,000 for the charity. However, that $150,000 was matched up. CBS did a golf competition, because they were trying to cash in on it. They did a matchup between Annika Sorenstam, the #1 female player in the world, and me. It was a “wolf” competition, more of a gambling game…on certain holes you feel you might be able to beat the person, on other holes not.
“I’m playing the #1 woman in the world, for a pot of $350,000. I won. So that was half a million dollars. My charity was Golfers Against Cancer. I had Michael Milken, with the Prostate Cancer Foundation, match it. It came up close to just shy of a million dollars.
“We started nine projects out of that money. Four of them today are still accepted cancer regimens. And that’s unheard of.
“I always look back on the time with Dancing With The Stars, and I see that four cancer regimens started out of that silliness of everything.”
The world’s best bread? Maybe. JerseyMan sent me to write a piece about Sarcone’s, the fifth-generation Philadelphia bakery. A lot of fun to write, and an iconic place to visit and pick up some truly amazing bread. You can view the PDF of the magazine article here.
It’s All About The Bread
Sarcone’s Bakery is in its fifth generation of baking bread for Philadelphians.
If you’re wondering just how good the bread is from Sarcone’s Bakery, consider that the winner of the Travel Channel’s “Best Sandwich in America” changed their rolls to Sarcone’s…after taking the prize.
In 2012 Adam Richman’s popular show spent ten episodes—with several elimination rounds—deciding which offering of meat on bread was the best in the nation. DiNic’s Roast Pork in the Reading Terminal Market won the hotly contested honor.
“The day after he got that trophy,” says Louis Sarcone Jr., the fourth generation owner of the venerable bakery, “the first thing he did was switch his bread to Sarcone’s.”
A bold move, to say the least.
“People were blown away by it,” Sarcone remembers. “You just won best sandwich in America. Not Philly, America! His answer was, we want to stay the best. How do you improve our sandwich? We improved our bread.”
To those familiar with Sarcone’s Bakery on South 9th Street, though, DiNic’s switch isn’t as earthshaking as it appears. The irony is that in changing a national award-winning formula, DiNic’s turned to an institution that hasn’t changed anything in 96 years.
At least they went with someone who has the technique down.
Sarcone’s has survived two World Wars, the Great Depression and every recession since. But perhaps more remarkably, it has survived what can be the toughest challenge several times…the next generation.
Sitting relaxed on the store’s window ledge, Lou Jr. shares the secrets of the family’s continued success. His son, Louis Sarcone III, stands patiently nearby, occasionally offering his own thoughts but seemingly more to learn the art of the interview from Dad…who is clearly versed in giving them.
“If you don’t listen to the generation before you, something gets lost,” Lou Jr. says. “You have to pay attention, and that’s the hardest thing for generational businesses, listening to the one before you. Even if you disagree with that person, you can really screw up a family business if you don’t listen.
“My grandfather, the first thing he told me was, if you put too much food in your mouth, you can’t chew. The younger generation sees a business, they see financial, they see money, they see an opportunity for the brand. If you try to expand too much, you lose something. You lose control of a business, you may lose a recipe, you may lose the quality of the product.
“But if you keep your product the same and keep trucking along, your customers will always come in because you make a great product.”
This isn’t to say that there’s never been attempts to expand the name, or even ill-advised ones. Sarcone’s Deli just up the street uses the bakery’s bread, and they are doing just fine. But opening delicatessens elsewhere proved a challenge. Possibly with his grandfather’s words in the back of his mind, Lou Jr. pulled back the reins.
“My first cousin, Anthony Bucci, was an executive chef for the Wyndham Plaza. He got tired of working for big companies. He opened his own deli in Limerick; he’s been there 28 years. We opened the deli about 12 years ago. I let him run it. The only thing I’m involved in is paperwork and making bread.
“We expanded; we had five delis not including our own. My father had gotten sick at the bakery, and my cousin had a heart attack and was out for a year and a half. I couldn’t do day-to-day operations for two businesses. We put too much food in our mouth, I did.”
The younger Sarcone adds: “You have to keep an eye on the franchises, because you want everything to be the same. They’ll start adding things that don’t belong.”
Lou Jr. agrees. “We use Di Bruno cheese. They might go to the supermarket and get it a dollar cheaper. Stuff like that happens. You don’t want it to happen, but it could happen. So before we had that black eye, we closed the deli.”
So while Cherry Hill residents may have been disappointed, Lou Jr. was content to go back to running the bakery. No reason to change what worked for four generations, be it the nature of the business or the recipe for the bread.
“I’ve never changed the recipe,” he notes. “Sometimes the quality of the flour may change, maybe protein levels aren’t there and you have to add a little bit of protein. We do have to adjust for that. But as far as changing the recipe, no. It’s water, flour, salt and yeast.”
But lest anyone think they can bake bread as good as Sarcone’s once they know the ingredients, Lou describes the craftsmanship of the baking process. The real secret? Time.
“It’s a six hour process. We have a guy that comes in at 12:00 every night. The dough sits for two hours. The bakers start coming in at 2:00 AM, processing the dough, the various shapes, sizes, and measures. It takes two hours to do that, so that’s four hours. Then they have to turn it into a loaf of bread, turn it into a roll, so by the time the bread is mixed and comes out of the oven, it’s six hours.
“No commercial bakery shop is going to wait six hours; they’re going to put in preservatives and meet the demand.”
Brick ovens make a difference too, as the younger Sarcone points out: “What also makes us unique is our ovens. They were built in 1920; you can’t find them anywhere anymore.”
Dad continues. “The alternative is metal, an oven that revolves. The only thing that revolves in a brick oven is our bakers. We go in with 15-foot sticks and move the bread around ourselves, to the hot spot in the oven.
“Ever see trucks that say ‘hearth-baked bread’? That’s baloney, because nobody uses brick, especially in a commercial bakery. Ours is hearth baked, there’s no metal in between the bread, the dough, and the hearth.
“It’s an art. There’s no timer, no thermostat on the oven. Well, there is, but they’re untrue. So it’s all knowing the dough, how loose it was or how cold it was or how warm it is out, how long it’s gonna take. And the sound; you pull a loaf of bread out and tap the bottom, you hear a certain sound, you know it’s done.”
It takes time to master the craft, so Sarcone keeps people around that do. “Bakers have been here at least ten years or more. They like what they’re doing, so they stay. I treat everybody like we’re family. Morale is good here, considering people are getting up at 2:00 in the morning.”
As Lou Jr. freely shares, the secret isn’t an ingredient or brand of yeast…it’s taking the time, sticking with what works, and not putting so much food in your mouth that you can’t chew. That’s the family formula that has kept the store in Philadelphia for nearly a century.
There have been plenty of awards and gushing press through the years, but Lou Jr.’s proudest moment was the locals’ response to a debilitating fire.
In October of 2000, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window, burning the front of the store down. The culprit was never captured nor the motive revealed—“there’s a million stories out there, pick one,” Lou says—but the city came together to literally lift the bakery from the ashes as quickly as possible.
“The fire department, the city council, the mayor, they came here to help us get open because they didn’t want to see us leave. Contractors, electricians, inspectors, zoning people, they were all here the next day. We didn’t have to wait. They were waiting for us.
“We were open a week next door. We moved our storefront into the packing area. It wasn’t pretty, but people actually liked that better. They saw men work, they saw the flour, they saw everything. We spent thousands to replace the store; they wanted the old way!
“That was something I’ll never forget, the way the neighbors and the city came together to help us.”
Fourteen years later, Sarcone’s remains a beloved institution in Philadelphia—and a must-visit for tourists. Customers gather daily outside like music fans once waited for concert tickets before the Internet. Lines begin forming at six in the morning and sometimes extend for blocks.
To Louis Sarcone Jr., it’s the definition of success.
“Remember Springdale Road and Route 70 in Cherry Hill, used to be called the Point View Inn?,” he asks. “A little house. That guy had lines for years back in the 70s. He turned it into what it looks like now. Because he got massively big, he closed within a year, then it was Pizzeria Uno, now it’s a PJ Whelihan’s. That place, I could always remember, it was the longest lines ever for a family restaurant.
“You want lines. You want people to have a hard time getting in. Why is that line two blocks long? We gotta try it!”
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Sarcone’s Bakery has been a Philly institution longer than…
…the Flyers, Eagles, and 76ers
…the Ben Franklin Bridge
…the 215 area code
…the Daily News
…WIP, WFIL, and WCAU radio
…the PSFS Building
…30th Street Station
…the Schuylkill Expressway
…Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteaks (and all of their successors)
Accolades for Sarcone’s from Yelp Nation:
In 64 Yelp reviews, Sarcone’s averages four and a half stars out of five. Some quotes from the bakery’s fans:
“In footie pajamas I offer night time prayers thankful that Sarcone’s exists and it’s so close to my house…’cause good bread they got…you seriously could put just about anything on that seeded Italian bread and it would be glorious.” – Kathleen D., Philadelphia
“It’s that alluring smell that makes you just want to rip off a piece and eat it. It doesn’t need butter, it’s perfect as is.” – Vinny P., Philadelphia
“My local farmer’s market has a small place in it that sells sandwiches. My Dad found out they were using rolls from Sarcone’s and asked to buy whatever they had leftover at the end of the night, and offered over triple what they originally paid for them. The Best Bread. Period.” Michelle M., Wilmington, DE
“You, along with many others, will line up to hopefully buy a long seeded roll, sandwich rolls, or anything else that comes fresh from their ovens. It’s a work of delicious, crispy crunchiness that cannot and will not be denied.” – Tyler R., Philadelphia
“Dear Sarcone’s – I miss you dreadfully. Whether I ate your bread fresh as I walked home, turned it into a hoagie or slathered it with garlic butter and baked it to soft yet crispy perfection, it always made the meal. There is no way to express the sadness I feel in my heart and in my mouth at now living so many states away…Love, Amelia” – Amelia L., Brighton, MA
“This place is why Philly can make a case for being the sandwich capital of the world.” – Chris W. Philadelphia
“I don’t even consider a Hoagie a Hoagie unless it’s made in a Sarcone Roll.” – Bruce B., Philadelphia
Staples of Sarcone’s:
Seeded Italian Bread – “We’re known for putting seeded Italian bread on the map,” Lou Sarcone Jr. says. “If I stop making seeded bread, if I only made plain bread, Liscio’s would have to change their bread to plain bread. They couldn’t fake it out being Sarcone’s.” Primo’s Hoagies started out with Sarcone’s seeded Italian bread, until the expansion made it impossible for Sarcone’s to keep up the supply. “Once they establish their name they leave me,” Sarcone says.
Tomato Pies – Sarcone’s tomato pies on their garlicky baked Sicilian crust are actually a popular breakfast item with locals; as the Zagat website mention of Sarcone’s describes it: “The end result is almost like what you get when sweeping up leftover spaghetti sauce on your plate with the end of your bread.”
Pepperoni Bread – The pepperoni rolls (or sausage rolls, if you prefer), contain a generous amount of meat for such a delicacy, and the soft crust of the bread contains just the right amount of olive oil. If they’re out of pizza slices in your next visit, try one of these.
Bread Crumbs – There isn’t often leftovers in a bakery that usually sells out its products in the early afternoon, but Lou Sarcone knows what to do with them. “We let it get stale for four or five days, then grind it up and sell it as bread crumbs. Restaurants buy them by the hundred pounds; walk-in customers buy it by the pound,” Lou says.
Airbnb has experienced some seriously explosive growth since three struggling tech guys rented out their San Francisco apartment during a convention. JerseyMan asked me to tell their fascinating tale and explain how Airbnb became so successful for the Spring 2017 issue. You can view the PDF of the article here.
The New + Improved Hospitality Business
Airbnb has made it possible for millions of travelers to stay in residents’ homes all over the globe…and help residents pay the rent.
I reside in Turnersville, NJ, a middle class suburb whose biggest attraction is an auto mall. It’s not exactly a bucket list destination. No one I know takes a vacation to buy a car.
So you can imagine my surprise upon learning that even Turnersville city slickers could earn a few bucks towards the mortgage…just by letting travelers use a spare bedroom.
See, the town actually has something going for it, aside from multi-gigawatt illumination of car dealership lots. It’s a short drive from the city where this nation was born, millions of tourists visit that city, and hotels are expensive and boring.
All a Turnersvillian needs to do is overcome the uneasiness of strangers staying in their home. Easier said than done, perhaps. And that trepidation works both ways. How many people would spend a vacation in the home of someone they’ve never met?
That might sound like a rhetorical question, if the answer wasn’t 60 million. That’s how many guests have used Airbnb.com for their travel lodging since the site’s debut in 2008.
Here’s some exponential growth: Airbnb celebrated its millionth booking in February 2011. Less than a year later, in January 2012, that number reached 5 million. That June they passed 10 million. There might be some calculus-related phenomenon for that line on a graph, but there’s little question that Airbnb has demolished the trust barrier.
The business model is simple enough. Travelers choose from sometimes thousands of residences to rent at their destination, often at far more reasonable rates than local hotels. Hosts can offer the use of a room or their entire home, including the refrigerator and stove, homemade breakfast, free parking, whatever makes the sale.
Both parties benefit. The guest has a greater variety of affordable lodging choices, and the host makes a few dollars to pay bills…no small thing in tourist destinations where the cost of living can be abominably high.
Airbnb’s cut…3% from the host and 6-12% from the guest for each booking…keeps the company going substantially well. With 60 million bookings, that 9-15% works out to…carry the exponent symbol…a boatload of money. (If you want the real number, Airbnb was recently valued at about $30 billion.)
It all started with a couple of young dreamers needing to pay rent. And several air mattresses.
It’s doubtful he planned it that way, but one of Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s entrepreneurial lessons is this, which he shared in an interview with Gigaom: “Being broke brings an incredible amount of discipline and focus.”
Chesky and his friend Joe Gebbia, now the CPO of Airbnb…and like Chesky, is now wealthy enough to buy the Yankees…moved to San Francisco in 2007 to create their startup, with no jobs, ideas or money.
That turned out to be key component of a savvy business plan.
Just as the rent was coming due, San Francisco hosted a tech convention that caused all the hotel rooms to be booked. To pay their landlord, the two offered a stay in their apartment on air mattresses, which attracted three paying visitors. You can almost hear the ding of the bulb switching on. Airbedandbreakfast.com was born.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Finding investors was difficult enough until they managed to win over Paul Graham at Y Combinator.
When Chesky and Gebbia, and their friend and tech expert Nathan Blecharczyk, needed to fund an eBay-style couchsurfing idea, Graham initially balked for obvious reasons. But he changed his tune when he saw the Obama O’s and Cap’n McCain cereal boxes that the young executives had designed and sold during the 2008 election. Graham was so impressed he even tried unsuccessfully to persuade his VC friends to buy in just on the basis of their drive.
Graham advised the founders…and funded the trip…to visit hosts in New York, where Airbnb had become a popular alternative to astronomical hotel rates. Chesky and Gebbia spoke face-to-face with hosts about their needs.
Ever since then Airbnb has striven to better the user experience in every way, from sending a professional photographer to hosts’ homes (a service Airbnb offers at no extra charge), to allowing users to sign up using Facebook accounts and simplifying the payment process. Airbnb requires verifiable information like phone numbers, and guests and hosts can publicly rate each other.
The timing didn’t hurt. The way had been somewhat paved: by the time Airbnb came along, eBay and Craigslist had already taken advantage of the Internet to make classifieds obsolete.
If eBay’s success has taught us anything, it’s that most of us are decent people who instinctively know that theft and assault is wrong. That’s why exceptions make the news. In the age of Facebook, it’s a great deal easier to learn enough about someone to feel comfortable riding in their car or even buying a car from them. For every story of fake Super Bowl tickets sold on Craigslist, there are a million stories of satisfied users who got something they wanted at a great price or made a profit selling something they no longer use.
It’s called the “sharing economy”, and given the meteoric rise of eBay, Uber and now Airbnb, apparently we’re comfortable with the odds. Airbnb users often gush that transactions often result in friendships and great experiences for travelers and hosts.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some nightmares.
The most notable story is of the Bay Area woman whose home was ransacked by a guest in 2011. She lost cash and valuables, and other items were burned in her fireplace with the flue closed. She was traumatized enough to start an anonymous blog, documenting Airbnb’s failure to address the devastation. It took some bad press, but Airbnb did apologize publicly and profusely and took steps to improve safety, including a damage guarantee for hosts that is now $1 million.
There was also the terrifying ordeal of a 19-year-old man staying in Madrid with a transgender man living as a woman, who locked him in the apartment and refused to let him out until he submitted to a sexual act. The story appeared in the New York Times, describing Airbnb’s arguably insufficient efforts to stop the assault. Airbnb quickly publicized that they would be instructing employees to call the police if they believed a crime was imminent. The victim advised Airbnb users to take precautions, like making the host’s address available to family members.
Those aren’t the only stories of bad actors, but that such tales are rare among millions of stays is pretty impressive. It’s not enough to give too much pause, obviously. But Airbnb also has legal issues to contend with these days.
The hotel industry isn’t happy about Airbnb cutting into their business. They might have a legitimate gripe. Part of the expense of running a hotel is following cleanliness and safety statutes that an Airbnb host doesn’t usually need to observe.
When you think about it, the stay on air mattresses that was the inspiration for Airbnb could arguably have been illegal. Zoning laws in many municipalities prohibit businesses to operate in residential areas, and running a hotel from home might qualify.
San Francisco had been one of the more stringent cities about such laws, even placing eviction notices on the doors of quite a few hosts. New York City, with almost 30,000 Airbnb hosts, has also taken issue with the service, citing a 2010 law that disallows apartment rentals for under 29 days. Lawmakers insisted it wasn’t targeted at Airbnb, but they did fine one host $7,000, a total eventually reduced to $2,400.
San Francisco eventually reconfigured the laws to make hosting legal, once Airbnb agreed to have hosts pay the 14% hotel tax. See, governments can be reasonable.
But the Big Apple continues to be a thorn in Airbnb’s side, recently passing legislation–signed by Governor Cuomo–that imposes stiff fines on property owners who don’t follow housing regulations while renting their homes. Politicians frequently used hot button words like “threat to affordable housing” in their support of the bill; Airbnb angrily accused them of protecting the hotel industry.
Now that they can, Airbnb has armed themselves with a strong legal team of their own, to fight the NYC battles and other regional disruptions that will likely keep ensuing.
As Gebbia was quoted in Inc. magazine, “The car had incredible opponents from the carriage industry. It would have been a big ask to get people to understand them overnight. But their value was proved over time.”
It hasn’t taken long. Every couple of seconds or so, a booking happens on Airbnb, and that interval keeps shrinking as the reputation for trust grows with each successful stay. Occasional ugly experiences and regulatory battles won’t likely stop the juggernaut.
Once one gets past the trust barrier, they’re getting the same deal as in any hotel…a room with a bed and a TV. Perhaps the most appealing part of all is lodging with a true local who…for business purposes…wants you to have a great stay. Unlike a concierge reading from a typewritten list of restaurants, a resident will actually know where to find the best Italian food or ideal parking spot.
Or where to buy a car.
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Being A “Superhost”
If you get enough positive feedback from visitors to your abode, Airbnb may make you a “Superhost” … the equivalent of an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.
According to Airbnb’s website, to become a “Superhost”, you have to, in one year, host at least 10 trips, maintain a 90% response rate, and receive a five-star review from at least 80% of the travelers who use your place. You don’t have to apply for the badge, they will give it to you automatically.
On the website, Airbnb lists some examples of Superhosts and what makes them stand out. One couple in Sydney, Australia put off the sale of their home rather than cancel a booking that they had made; a woman in Rome, Italy always invites her guests to join her and her friends for meals or conversation. Airbnb points out what makes a Superhost: going the extra mile and doing things one wishes hotels would do.
The Superhost gets a shiny badge on their listing showing their status, and there are some other perks too…like a $100 travel coupon for maintaining your status, priority support, and exclusive invitations to product releases and events.
Best of all, potential guests can filter their search to have only Superhosts show up in the results. Kind of like filtering only one-star reviews of a product on Amazon.
“You’re Staying Where?”
Admit it, you’ve probably never stayed overnight in an igloo before. But that’s the beauty of Airbnb…a different style of lodging. But an igloo, you ask? Yes, and check out some of the types of residences that are currently listed on Airbnb:
Igloo – You can stay inside of an igloo by a lake in Norway for $181 a night; the listing says that it can sleep 2-3 people and to bring your sleeping bag. It doesn’t have any reviews, so apparently, the igloo thing hasn’t caught on yet. Airbnb removed a Brooklyn igloo listing in 2016, saying it didn’t meet the occupancy standards. Someone will get it right.
Castle – On the other hand, castles are pretty big on Airbnb…an article on the Conde Nast traveler site listed 11 of them, with stunning photos and equally stunning prices. The Castello Dal Pozzo in Piedmont, Italy goes for $4,029 a night, and the Martello Tower in Dalkey, Ireland brings in $518 a night. If you search for “Airbnb castles”, you can see top 20 listings in France and Ireland alone.
Tree House – Thrillist recently published an article listing the “25 Coolest Treehouses on Airbnb”. #1 is in Atlanta…it’s three separate rooms connected by a rope bridge and goes for $375 a night. Airbnb says it’s the “most wished for listing in 2016”. Others include a luxury treehouse on the Bayou in Baton Rouge, a Bay Area treehouse with a wraparound porch and food delivery, and a treehouse in Swallowtail studios “with 360-degree views of surrounding vineyards. The nice thing is that they all have stairways.
An Airplane – Airbnb was the site for a contest to win a stay in a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines airplane…the plane had been retired from service and furnished with a living room, bedrooms and two kitchens. There were some comical rules to follow, like “No Smoking when the non-smoking sign is on”, and “No marshmallow roasting with the jet engines”.
They offered movies with your stay too…one of them…no, I’m not making this up…was “Snakes On A Plane”.
Eating Your Own Dog Food
Brian Chesky isn’t just the co-owner of Airbnb, he’s also a client.
In 2010 Chesky decided to finally move out of the San Francisco apartment that housed the first Airbnb travelers. To a new mansion? Nope. He spent several years staying with Airbnb hosts in San Francisco and elsewhere.
As he said on Twitter, “I am still homeless (most of the time), and living on Airbnb.”
In other words, Chesky is so dedicated to his craft that he lives it; he stays with Airbnb hosts every night and continues to do what he and Gebbia did in New York City at the start; stay with hosts and learn from them how to improve the experience. In entrepreneur-speak, it’s called “eating your own dog food”.
After all, why buy a house you won’t be in most of the time? Chesky has pointed out that the sharing economy was all about avoiding buying something you won’t use. The average power drill, he is quoted in Traveller as saying, gets used a total of 13 minutes in its lifetime, but there are 80 million of them out there.
Chesky still lists the San Francisco apartment as his primary residence…and incidentally, as recently as 2015 you could still book a $50 stay on the couch.
Missing The Boat
Another of Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s tenets for entrepreneurs is “conventional wisdom is overrated”.
Venture capitalists know this better than anyone…they all know the stories of products that no one believed would sell, like the Beatles, bottled water, or a Donald Trump presidency. But you can imagine that even they might balk at the idea of a website that enables people to rent out rooms to strangers for a night. At least until they see how dedicated to overcoming that mistrust barrier these entrepreneurs really were.
Paul Graham saw that…his friend Fred Wilson didn’t. Despite repeated e-mails from Graham pleading with Wilson to at least meet with the Airbnb guys, Wilson reluctantly balked at an investment…the proverbial definition of missing the boat. To Wilson’s great credit, he published his mistake on his blog.
According to Wilson, his mistake was focusing on the idea and not the people. He just didn’t see air mattress stays taking off. Paul Graham, through a series of e-mails, tried heavily to convince Wilson to meet with the founders. Graham believed that Chesky and Gebbia had what it took to become billionaires…a willingness to make an unusual idea work, and to do what it took to make that happen.
Today Wilson still has a box of “Obama O’s” that Chesky and Gebbia created and sold to fund their startup in his office. Why? So he can tell the story to entrepreneurs who don’t know how to raise money for their own startup.
“It’s a story of pure unadulterated hustle,” he says. “And I love it.”
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Photo credit: Kevin Krejci on Best Running / CC BY
Did you know that the game of bocce has existed for over 7,000 years? That’s longer than most religions last! JerseyMan sent me to write about Major League Bocce and the growth of the league. You can view the PDF of the magazine edition here.
The Game of Balls
After 7,000 years, a group of friends finally made obvious what’s so great about the game of bocce.
Listening to Sarah DeLucas, it all started when she and a group of friends were cooped up indoors for a hurricane party. And someone said, “Let’s start a bocce league.”
“Like most great ideas that come about, we were just drinking at someone’s house,” the part owner of Major League Bocce says.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that simple. This free-thinking group was actually looking for a socializing sport. Something beer-league friendly that players wouldn’t take too seriously. But as DeLucas explains, once bocce was suggested, it seemed obvious.
“I was relatively new to Washington, as were some of my friends. We played in a kickball league. We liked the concept of social sports; it was fun to go do a recreational activity and then go to the bar after games and socialize. But we didn’t really like kickball. There were a lot of rules and regulations that we thought were a little ridiculous. And we were like, we should just do our own thing.
“My friend grew up playing bocce, and he thought we could totally do this, it would be really easy. First of all, it’s very easy to set up, because you don’t need to play on a specific field. Softball, kickball, you need a baseball diamond. Soccer, you need a soccer pitch. Bocce you can fit in any sort of green space and just play.
“Also, bocce is super social, you’re hanging out with everybody, your team, your opponents, you’re all standing around talking. It’s also very easy to pick up. For kickball or softball you have to learn certain abilities, how to throw a ball or kick a ball or bat a ball. People don’t necessarily have those skills.”
Fortunately, there were people in the hurricane room with business acumen too, like DeLucas and her friend Rachael Preston, a possessor of an MBA from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
“Everyone took on different things,” Preston adds. “My thing was to make sure we had articles of incorporation to file with the city, another partner had taken on starting the bank account, and we had to pay a few hundred dollars to get our permit.
“Then we e-mailed everybody we knew and said, ‘Hey, come play bocce with us!’”
That is how Major League Bocce, the umbrella of official bocce leagues now in ten cities, was formed in 2004; a group of D.C. friends stuck in a house during a hurricane, looking for an activity that would enable people to compete and mingle at the same time. The league website notes that when it came to finding a social sport, “Bocce was the obvious choice as athletic coordination was hardly a prerequisite for play.”
Indeed, when you can hold a beer with one hand while playing (don’t actually do that, though, you could damage the court), you know it’s a sport for the rest of us.
Just in case you’re one of those rare folks in South Jersey that doesn’t have Italian roots in your family tree, the rules of bocce can be learned in about ten seconds. Here they are:
1) A target ball, called the pallino, is rolled out onto the court.
2) Two teams take turns rolling balls as close to the pallino as possible.
That’s pretty much it. Oh, there are rule variations; there is an International Bocce Federation that defines regulation court sizes for tournaments and rules about things like what to do if a ball strikes the backboard. Major League Bocce does have its own set of statutes for game situations, obviously. But if a person can grasp those two basic rules, they can play bocce.
A bocce league is like a bowling league. Participants can drink beer while playing, often wear shirts bright enough to direct traffic, and range from every level of skill. But bocce has some key advantages over bowling too…like not having to rent community shoes that are cleansed only with a mysterious spray, for one. Nor is the scoring anywhere near complicated enough to require a computer program; a team gets a point for each ball closer to the pallino than the other team’s closest ball. On to the next round. And after the game, enjoy an adult beverage at the bar.
That simplicity and community is the beauty of it. In just over ten years, the Major League Bocce people have helped make obvious the benefits of a game that has existed for millennia without ever being an Olympic event.
For a sport that has never seen a city government hand over billions of taxpayer dollars to build a venue, bocce has some serious staying power.
The first recorded drawings of men throwing balls…well, round rocks, anyway…at targets have been dated as far back as 5200 B.C. in Egypt. Early versions of the game spread through Greece and then Rome in the years of the Roman Empire. The Romans brought coconuts back from Africa for bowling events…arguably the first recorded instance of coconut migration.
In the days before Abner Doubleday, the game of balls enjoyed quite a bit of popularity. Even celebrities of their day like Hippocrates and Galileo were known to sing the game’s praises. There was no restricting factor like social status; anyone with round rocks could play, and so they did.
Much like Elvis, for a time the game was even seen as a threat to society. It had become so popular that nations began to worry that it was weakening their armies…the appeal of throwing balls drew participants away from military exercises like archery practice. Even the Catholic Church frowned on it, citing it as a form of gambling that could interfere with Bingo nights.
But the game was kept alive in Great Britain; there is a legend that Sir Francis Drake once refused to face the Spanish Armada until after a game was finished. Later, Giuseppe Garibaldi, among his many accomplishments unifying Italy, popularized the sport as we know it today. Its growth eventually led to the game being brought to the U.S. by Italian immigrants. The name “bocce” is the plural of the Italian “boccia”, meaning bowl, as a verb.
According to the United States Bocce Federation, there are 25 million bocce enthusiasts in America today. That might be a stretch, but the sport has definitely grown outside of the Italian-American community, the rapidly growing popularity of Major League Bocce being just one example.
From its humble beginnings in a Washington hurricane party, Major League Bocce is now in ten cities; other than D.C., Philadelphia and Boston are where it is growing the fastest. There were 1,500 participants in the Philadelphia division in 2015; Preston estimates that 60% of them are returning customers, a number she is confident will grow even larger. “We’re always testing out different things, trying to see what is the most attractive for people,” Preston says.
That expansion took place in just two years, from 2012 to 2014…“we spent 2015 playing catch up”, Preston laughs…and now there are plans to reach into the West Coast.
Players can sign up anytime; each season of the year features a season of bocce. During the spring and summer in Philly, it’s played outdoors at places like Cavanaugh’s River Deck or in Dilworth Park; in the fall and winter the crew sets up indoors at the Field House or Cavanaugh’s Headhouse in Center City. Each season consists of six weeks of regular season play, followed by two weeks of bracket-style elimination playoffs.
Like the owners say, it’s easy to set up anywhere, and there’s always a place to roll and enjoy an adult beverage afterward with fellow bocce enthusiasts. Drinking establishment partners love the mutual benefit too…simply dedicating a space for a bocce court brings in a dedicated group of customers for eight weeks. Beer brands have gotten into the act as well…Dogfish Head is now a major sponsor with the Philly group, making swag prizes another incentive for players.
And it all happened because some Washington natives take their kickball too seriously.
Preston and DeLucas have quit working for the man and are now full time co-owners of Major League Bocce. It’s been stressful, DeLucas admits, but both are really proud of the growth and success in other cities. It’s doubtful that either of them ever dreamed that finding the ideal fraternizing sport would turn into full time employment. The two have become successful entrepreneurs just through wanting to have a good time with friends.
For centuries, the game of balls has had a way of hooking people like that.
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Start Your Own Bocce League
Unlike in fantasy sports, where you’re leaving your success in the hands of athletes that have bad days, in a bocce league you have control of your destiny. Major League Bocce enables players with the right amount of “social stamina” to set up their own league. League owners can create a website, post scores and standings, and even activate a system to collect dues. As one league owner stated, “If you can use Facebook, you can run your own league with Major League Bocce.”
The league FAQ lists some tips on setting up your own tournament play, including the equipment you’ll need to set up a court, where to find the best place to play, the number of people in a typical league and a recommended season length. If you need to know more, the folks at the website are glad to help.
And if you’re a bar owner in South Jersey who’d like to bring in some bocce players, give Sarah DeLucas a shout. “I really want to try and get something going in New Jersey; I looked last fall at the Collingswood/Haddon Heights area, but we just weren’t able to get it off the ground. It would be spectacular if someone came to me,” she laughs.
The league website is www.majorleaguebocce.com.
Fanny Kissing Is For Losers
In the 1800s when a version of bocce called “boules” or “petanque” was enjoying popularity in France, the story goes that in addition to the agony of defeat, a woman named Fanny would expose her rear end to the losers, who were then required to kiss her behind.
There are several versions of how the Fanny legend got started. One story goes that she was something of a boules groupie, who let losers kiss her on the cheek as a consolation prize…until the town mayor lost a game. Fanny not being a fan of the mayor, she exposed her rear for him to kiss instead…which he did, as politicians do so well.
Petanque players often use the phrase “being Fanny” for a team that loses a game without scoring a single point. Today there are sculptures or trophies of “Fanny” nearly everywhere that the game of petanque is played, and likenesses of her are often seen in bocce clubs too.
Umberto Granaglia – The Greatest
The late Umberto Granaglia, who passed away in 2008, was widely considered the greatest bocce player ever. It’s hard to argue the numbers: 13 world championships, 12 European championships, and 46 Italian national championships…records all…from 1954 to 1980. He was named “Player of the 20th Century” by the Confédération Mondiale des Sports de Boules, the official governing body of bocce.
The Bocce Federation of Australia’s obituary of Granaglia especially praised his performance in the first ever World Bocce championship held in Australia, in Melbourne. Granaglia led Italy to the doubles championship, soundly defeating France 15-6 in the final. He scored 28 hits in 29 throws in the final game. “A remarkable performance”, the obituary noted.
Patrice Banks gave up her six-figure income occupation to start up the Girls Auto Clinic, an auto repair shop run by and for women. Women can get the car fixed and have their nails done while they wait.
Because She Can
Patrice Banks, owner of Girls Auto Clinic in Upper Darby, is smashing a conventional wisdom held for generations…that women can’t understand cars.
As we guys know, our women can be astoundingly forgiving sorts. We see it an awful lot with our leaders’ wives. We screw up regularly, and they not only put up with it, they’ll even show support for us in public.
But take advantage of a Philly girl one too many times, and one day she’ll open up an industrial-sized can of whoop-ass on you.
For example, imagine an entire industry neglecting a demographic worth $200 billion a year. That’s how much the fairer sex spends buying automobiles and repairing them. And yet in a 2013 RepairPal survey, two-thirds of them believed they were overcharged for repairs simply because they are women.
Patrice Banks, owner of the Girls Auto Clinic and Clutch Beauty Salon in Upper Darby, knows the feeling. As a former “auto airhead”, she spent much of her adult life dreading—and sometimes dangerously postponing—trips to mechanics for oil changes and repairs. Like much of her gender since the dawn of automobiles, her lack of car knowledge caused her to zone out whenever a mechanic explained a repair. And yes, she has stories about being ripped off.
One day a wormhole opened. Banks suddenly decided to answer a simple question that no one had answered in over a century: Why are females so intimidated by the workings of an automobile?
Answering the question turned into a lifetime mission…to finally answer to the needs of that $200 billion demographic.
At Girls Auto Clinic, women can get their car serviced…and have their nails done as they wait. Nearly all her employees, including the mechanics, are women. The store is popular enough to have a 4.9 rating in 188 Facebook reviews. Banks also hosts popular and free workshops, and maintains a blog on auto repair and maintenance.
She also managed to publish a 300-page book breaking down and explaining cars, titled the Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide. The book openly states that it’s a necessary component of a well-stocked glove compartment. Boastful? Maybe. But in the book, the blog and her workshops, with her simple explanations of why cars need oil changes and what crankshafts do, Banks makes the point throughout: this stuff isn’t that hard. If a former auto airhead can teach it, anyone can learn it.
If she only desired financial success, giving up a lucrative career and sinking one’s life savings into an untested business model would be an odd route. It’s female independence that drives Patrice Banks.
As the daughter of a single mother—who, as Banks puts mildly, made poor life choices—she saw first hand the need for women to be self-sufficient.
“I didn’t have an empowered mother, which is crazy, because I was always an empowered girl. I always wanted to prove that women could do anything men could do,” she says. “I believed I was bigger than my surroundings. I didn’t want to become my mother. So I was always funneling my extra time into positive things, schoolwork, sports, having jobs.
“My mom didn’t know how to drive, she took the bus to work. I had to ask people for rides home, and I hated being dependent on others. And that has a lot to do with why I’m very self-reliant.”
In her desire for a better life, she toiled for a degree in Materials Engineering from Lehigh University. From there she spent 12 years as a failure analyst and manager at DuPont, where she was pulling down six figures. In other words, she made enough money to buy new cars solely to minimize trips to a mechanic.
In her spare time, she started a blog called “Banks On It”, dedicated to teaching women to do things they generally paid or asked men to do…such as fixing toilets or investing money. As she mined for ideas, she asked every woman she knew what they needed help with the most.
The overwhelming response? Wait for it…“Cars.”
Banks searched for a female mechanic in the area to help her explain automobiles…and came up empty. It was, she says, her “light bulb moment”. The well-paid engineer decided to become a mechanic herself.
She spent evenings earning an Automotive Technology diploma from Delaware Technical Community College. During that time, she offered to work as a mechanic for free…and was turned down at several shops, for reasons like “the boss’s wife won’t like it.” Once she became familiar with the not-so-complicated inner workings of automobiles, she opened her own shop.
Judging from the exposure she’s gotten since, including appearances on Fox & Friends, CBS This Morning, and O Magazine, it sounds like she’s onto something.
As Banks wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, 2% of the nation’s auto mechanics are women, and just 13% of car salespeople are women. She drove home the point: “it’s easy for us to feel misunderstood and mistreated by the auto business when we don’t see ourselves reflected in it.”
“We need to have more women in the industry that we can interface with, that we can talk to about our cars,” she says. “Women would rather deal with a woman because we know what they go through. We have women that come from miles away, they don’t even care about our certifications, they trust us to work on their cars because we’re women. That’s how bad it is.”
As an example, she cites unnecessary “upsells” like filters and flushes that shops peddle to less car-savvy customers. “They do need to be done, but they only need to be done at certain times. You don’t need an air filter every oil change, you need one maybe every other oil change.”
She unequivocally states that it’s ingrained. “It’s become this culture, because of the way that the business model is set up. I see people being told they need new brakes when they don’t. I see that all the time. When I went back to school, I realized what’s really necessary. We’re not going to upsell, we’re going to offer you a fair price.”
And if you’re marketing to women, it doesn’t hurt to have a beauty salon as a waiting area. The Clutch Beauty Bar is humorously auto-themed, with toolboxes at each station and a sink constructed from a wheel. It’s a place where women can get “manis, pedis, and blowouts” as their oil is being changed.
The customers love it. As Lorie “Lulu” Tisdell gets her toenails painted, she gushes excitedly about GAC, pointing out the toolboxes and hanging extension cords in the salon and sharing her story about finding the place during a snowstorm. Lulu has been a loyal devotee since the beginning.
Even more so, Banks’s employees are appreciative. As Colleen McClure works the front desk taking calls and speaking with customers, she shares how she worked for years at a hydraulic shop and turned wrenches at other independent repair shops. She offers a simple explanation why she quit: “I was treated like s***.”
It’s an obvious business model. But an industry that spends millions coming up with car names like “Probe” and “Cruze” somehow missed it.
It’s actually difficult to imagine Patrice Banks having difficulty persuading a man to fix her car. She is easily personable, bubbly but never overbearingly so, and decidedly easy on the eyes.
Away from a camera or microphone, her humility stands out far more than her trademark spunk. She can even be seen decorating a Christmas tree in the shop. “I always look forward to decorating until I’m actually doing it, then I realize this is hard work,” she jokes. When talking with Patrice, one never gets the impression that she considers herself superior.
Which, when you think about it, makes her a perfect fit to appeal to a demographic whose pet peeve is feeling condescended to by mechanics and salesmen.
Ask her what her proudest achievement is and it’s not being featured in Oprah’s magazine or on national TV. It’s her success in what she set out to do…help women in an arena where they have been neglected, and given the amount of money they spend, profoundly underappreciated. There have been difficulties, to be sure, but Patrice Banks has no doubt that this is what she was born to do.
“With any startups, you make a lot of mistakes that cost you a lot of money. Everyone will. I tell people, I fail every day, and I look forward to it, because it gets me closer to winning. Small businesses make dumb mistakes, big businesses make dumb mistakes and it costs them millions. I’d rather make them now when I’m small.”
There is nothing small about the impact Patrice has had on her employees especially. “Since my shop opened, my mechanics have come to me and said this was the best paying job they’ve ever had. And that makes me feel good, to be paying women well, to help their families, particularly in a profession that they’ve struggled in and been kicked out of.
“That to me is my greatest accomplishment, and I’m grateful.”
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You Turned Down Who?
Despite that every day she has to ensure that customers keep coming to the shop, Patrice Banks has turned down opportunities for publicity that struggling entrepreneurs would die for. Imagine rejecting offers to appear with Rachael Ray or Ryan Seacrest, or even a chance to show America your business on “Shark Tank”. But she’s learned that national exposure isn’t always a good thing.
“Press isn’t always cracked up to what you think it is,” she explains. “And one of the reasons is that there’s too much content. Everyone’s looking for content. I would be excited at this network coverage, and they would do the story and I would be on TV, but all I have is my shop, I can’t reach someone in California. So it wasn’t translating into sales.
“We were having people come here and shoot all day, five or six hours, but some people would like my page and that was it. I couldn’t convert it into buyers. It started to become a distraction, because I had nothing to sell to a national audience. People would want me to franchise, and I just can’t yet. It wasn’t an advantage, because I wasn’t prepared for it.
“Rachael Ray and Ryan Seacrest, they all wanted to have me on before my book came out. The problem I have now is, now that I have a book to sell, the old press are saying, well, we’ve already done a story on you. And new press is saying, well they did a story on you.
“But you don’t know these things starting out. You’re all like, it’s great, and you can talk about it, but you realize that’s not always the best way to go about it.”
What is a #SheCANic?
Part of Patrice Banks’ dedication to helping females is by turning them into “#sheCANics”. The term, in her words, describes “a female of any age who has mastered the mechanics of ‘yes I can’ and uses them to get to ‘yes I did.’
On the #sheCANic page of the Girls Auto Clinic website, women can read a blog full of car tips, find out when and where Patrice will be giving her next workshop, or join a Facebook community of over 9,000 members where they can have their car questions answered.
The blog is full of posts directed at women…with titles like “Alternators Are Like Cell Phone Chargers…” or “Does Your Car Have Boogies?” But they are ultimately serious and simply explained posts designed both to help women take better care of their cars and also to realize that these things are easy to understand.
The #sheCANic logo includes the red heel, a part of Banks’ signature look that happened by accident. “I had to go right from work to school,” she told Oxygen.com. “At work I wore slacks and heels. At school we had to wear dirty clothes, so I mixed them up. One day I was under a car pulling out a starter, and someone took a picture of my heels sticking out. It was perfect.”
Incidentally, no, Patrice doesn’t work on cars with her heels on. Nor, she says in her book, does she recommend doing so.
The technology keeps improving with electric cars, and it’s becoming much easier to take long trips without concern for being stranded. Yours truly explored and wrote about this for the Fall 2019 issue of JerseyMan magazine; you can view the PDF of the article here.
The Electric Road Trip
Car charging stations are springing up rapidly everywhere these days, making long-distance travel much easier for electric vehicle owners.
Sure, I want to save the planet from carbon emissions. Our children’s future depends on it. But is it really worth being stranded on I-95 on the way to Florida in my electric car?
Okay, maybe we’re not that spoiled. Despite some limitations compared to fuel-powered vehicles, electric vehicles are selling pretty well these days. We just need to solve that range problem.
As recently as 2016, McKinsey Industries, a firm dedicated to sustainability solutions, listed limited availability of charging stations as the third biggest barrier to electric vehicle sales, after the price of cars and limited driving range. Most EV owners still charge their cars at home, and owners of less expensive EVs with shorter ranges generally use them only for daily commutes and short trips.
But we are a nation of doers, and that situation is changing fast.
In May 2019, the Department of Energy reported that there are now more than 68,000 charging units in the U.S., nearly 11,000 of which are fast charging stations that can “fill up” an EV in less than 20 minutes. The Tesla superchargers appearing in many spots, including Wawas in the area, are only compatible with Tesla vehicles. But other networks are growing for the rest of us.
You may not have heard of EVgo, but you’ve probably seen the name NRG on the Broad Street Line’s Sports Complex station. Same company. EVgo offers DC fast charging…the fastest form available as of 2019…in 66 metropolitan markets from their considerable grid. As EVgo states, you can charge your car to 80% in approximately a half hour, while you stretch your legs, grab a bite, and take care of other business.
Bill Evans, the CEO at Liberty Fox Technologies and one of our esteemed Legacy Club members, is the proud owner of a Tesla Model S.
The Model S isn’t cheap…it currently carries a price tag of $75K. If you’re a tightwad, you can drive a Model 3 off the lot for under $40K. If it helps, remember you’re going to be saving a lot of money in fuel over the long haul, even without the free supercharging for life offered to Model S owners.
Evans likes a lot of things about his Model S, but he considers the fuel savings to be “a nice perk”.
“I tend to drive between 1,800 and 2,000 miles per month. In my previous vehicle, I was averaging about $250 a month in gas. For the same mileage, I am averaging $80 per month in electric. So I am using about 1/3 the cost in electricity as I was in gasoline.”
The cost savings is generally typical of EVs. A Chevy Bolt currently averages 25.21 kWh (kilowatt hours) per 100 miles. So at 13 cents per kWh (the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Energy), then 100 miles would cost about $3.25. Even for the most fuel-efficient cars, that soundly beats gas prices.
But if you’re considering buying an electric vehicle to save money, we’re not quite there…yet.
In July 2019, U.S. News & World Report listed the cheapest electric vehicle as the Smart EQ Fortwo, at nearly $27K. The Fortwo is aptly named…attempting to shoehorn three people into one of these might make for a humorous YouTube video. Second is the Nissan Leaf at just under $30K, which is more spacious and offers 150 miles of range on a charge. Good for daily commutes…for longer road trips, maybe not so much.
But compared to the limited range technology of not very long ago, this is quite the improvement, and Tesla CEO and extreme visionary Elon Musk has stated that one of his company’s goals is making electric vehicles available at prices the 99% can afford. Given their great strides of late, this seems much more attainable than, say, colonizing Mars. (Which is also on Musk’s to-do list).
While the convenience and cost of owning an electric vehicle continues to rapidly improve, longer trips still require more planning. It’s not terribly difficult, but it requires more than simply pulling off the road at a Wawa.
For one, it takes longer.
A Level 1 charge is the equivalent plugging your car into a 120V outlet in your home, and can handle your short commute within reason if you charge overnight. With a Level 2 charge in a 240V outlet, available at most charging stations or from an adapter for your home, it takes about 4-8 hours to fill up. A DC Fast Level 3 charge gets the job done in less than a half hour.
Evans describes charging his Tesla like this: “If you plug the Tesla into a regular 120-volt outlet like you’d plug in your television, the car could take up to three days to fully charge (which is absurd). If you use a higher voltage outlet, the car can fully charge in about 5 hours.
“But if you need the car to charge really fast, you can get a very powerful charge at the supercharging station in as little as 15 minutes…and Tesla is working to reduce this even further to about five minutes. At 15 minutes or less, I would say it is no less convenient than a conventional car.”
But it’s still not quite as fast as the gas pump, which is why Tesla has been smart enough to install Supercharger stations at gas station/convenience shops, including some Wawas, Royal Farms, and other stores in the area. It works great for the store owner…the charging EV owner can spend time in the store ordering a sandwich or coffee while they wait.
Another growing spot for chargers is an obvious one…hotels. As of this writing, Marriott offers Level 2 charging stations at 3,137 of their hotels, including the Courtyard on Presidential Boulevard in Philly. Something to consider when choosing where to sack out in South Carolina on your way to Disney.
One important caveat, though…plan your trip to avoid the isolated station on the busy highway if you can. That could be a busy place. It’s a problem that internal combustion engine cars had in their early days.
With a rapidly expanding network of charging stations and dropping prices of electric vehicles, we may all be able to hit the road to visit a few ballparks without emissions in the not too distant future.
As recently as April 2017, Eric Schaal at Motor Biscuit published a piece called “5 Biggest Problems With Electric Vehicle Charging”. In it he explained that it’s more challenging to charge your electric car…especially while you’re already on the road…than it is to simply stop at a pump and fuel up.
“It’s quite difficult to fast-charge your car in many U.S. cities, even when money is no object.” Schaal pointed out. “You have to drive through strange neighborhoods and try to locate chargers in vast parking lots where GPS is known to drop out of service.”
The apps help, but not as much as they should, according to Schaal. “You might need two or three apps just to know where a charging station is, and once you get there you might not be able to use it because it’s operated by a provider with whom you haven’t opened an account.”
Just two years later, Bill Evans can testify that Tesla owners, at least, don’t need to be concerned about being stranded on the highway.
“You really, really need to be neglectful to put yourself in this position,” Evans explains. “If you charge the car every day like I do, you start every single day with your full mileage range (240 miles or 330 miles depending on your model). Given that I rarely ever drive 240+ miles in a single day, this is really a fringe case.
“Secondly, as long as you are using the GPS feature of your car, the Tesla is fully aware of its range, and if it is concerned you won’t reach your destination, it will route the most convenient Supercharging location into your directions to make sure you stop and top off before continuing.
“To end up on the side of the road with a dead Tesla and no chargers requires that you ignore every single warning and recommendation from the car to force that situation to occur.
“If you started in New Jersey and wanted to drive to Disney World, the Tesla will route multiple supercharging stops along the way and include the charging time at each in the projected Estimated Time of Arrival. As long as you use the GPS, the car will plan the entire drive and charging locations.”
And once there are charging stations at South of The Border, it’s likely the Northeast will be all in.
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Battery Myth No. 1 – Full Drainage
JerseyMan Magazine always goes the extra mile for its readers, so in addition to the useful information contained here, we can dispel a myth for you.
You’ve probably heard it before: let your smartphone drain completely before charging it up again. This will…supposedly…help your phone battery last longer. And it stands to reason people might find that useful with their electric car, too.
Here’s the real scoop from our friends at Mashable: “It’s better to charge your phone every day than to do a ‘deep charge’ from time to time. Lithium-ion batteries, like the kind used in Samsung and Apple products, fare better when they’re charged. If you constantly let them drain to 0%, they become unstable. Your battery has a finite number of charge cycles, and every time it fully dies, that’s another cycle out the window.”
Leaving aside that you would have to let your car idle for an extended period of time near a charging station, this applies to your electric vehicle’s battery…completely draining it can reduce its overall life too.
So there’s no need to time your car charging station visit to the kilowatt hour. Or wait for your phone to completely discharge, for that matter. A helpful tip at no extra charge!
Battery Myth No. 2 – The Colder, Longer Lasting Battery
In case you’re wondering, no, putting your EV battery in a freezer won’t make it last longer.
Like with gas-powered engines, EVs can suffer decreased performance and range in extreme cold weather. There are several reasons for this, including that the electricity running your car’s heater uses the same battery that is plowing a car through the snow.
But before you balk at buying a new Bolt out of concern for New Jersey’s sometimes biting winters, consider this: Norway…yes, Norway…is one of the world’s leaders in adopting the electric vehicle. Part of the reason is subsidies, but it’s hard to imagine Norwegians buying cars that don’t work in the cold.
Yes, there is definitely decreased range in electric vehicle batteries in below freezing temps, more so than in fuel-powered cars. But there are ways to overcome this, including “preconditioning”, or pre-heating your battery before it is finished charging, similar to remotely starting up your car before driving. Many EV models have this capability.
John Voelcker from the Green Car Reports blog also suggests bundling up and leaving your coat and layers on in the car. While it may be cringe-worthy to pay upwards of $30K for a car that still requires wearing a coat to drive, Voelcker adds: “Don’t worry if you think you look like a dork; the real dork is the guy stranded on the side of the road because he ran out of juice.”
Incidentally, extreme heat can do a number on your battery too, since batteries contain fluid that evaporates in high temps. Even more so than with fueled cars, it’s recommended that drivers park in the shade or in garage whenever possible.
Car Charging Station Etiquette
With charging stations still not quite as readily available at gas pumps, there is something of an unwritten code of conduct regarding their use.
One of the more common issues, according to Green Car Reports, is called “ICE-ing”. It’s when a car with an internal combustion engine parks in a spot with a charging station reserved for electric cars. If you can’t page security in the garage, the most you can do is leave a note for the driver.
Green Car Reports recommends other guidelines for using charging stations. For one, don’t occupy the space longer than you need to for a recharge, even if it’s a parking spot. If you can’t get to your car to remove the plug, you can leave a note for other drivers that they can remove it if they see your car is fully charged.
Also, if you can make it home, leave the charging station for someone else. They could be down to their last few miles and need the charge more than you do.
With their Supercharging stations, Tesla is somewhat enforcing charging station etiquette with an “idle fee”. If you keep your car at a busy charging station more than five minutes after your car is charged, a fee is charged on your account. Tesla states that this isn’t intended for profit…it’s working towards the goal of keeping charging stations as available as possible.
Basically it comes down to treating a charging station the same as a gas pump and not leaving your car there…but more so for now, at least until we go full electric.
JerseyMan sent me to interview former Eagles GM Jim Murray for their Summer 2017 issue. You may remember that he hired Dick Vermeil, but you may not know about the larger impact he’s had…on families worldwide. (I met with Dick Vermeil at a JerseyMan event, and he told me he enjoyed the article, which made me happy.)
Jim Murray was the Eagles GM who persuaded Dick Vermeil to come to town and lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl, but the born and raised Philadelphian’s impact still today reaches much farther than a football field.
Nearly half a century after an incident involving Santa Claus and snowballs at an Eagles game…you may have read about it…the City of Brotherly Love still today has a reputation for hideous monsters posing as sports fans.
One can imagine how, just eight years after that incident, it was enough to give a champion college football coach pause before taking a head coaching job in Philly.
Fortunately for all of us, Jim Murray, the Eagles’ general manager at the time, is prone to occasional moments of prescience.
“Vermeil’s very intense, very thorough. I remember inviting him to the Beverly Hills hotel, he answered the phone and hung up, thanks but no thanks. And then the phone rang ten minutes later and it was him.
“During the interview, he stopped and said, Jimmy, can I ask you a question? I said sure, that’s why I’m here. ‘Why would I come to Philadelphia?’ I said, what does that mean? He said, well I’ve been there, I was the special teams coach for George Allen and the Rams, those fans!
“I said Coach, I’m gonna be Jeremiah. I’m gonna be the prophet. I’m gonna tell you something.
“You come to Philadelphia and we hire you, and these three things will happen. Not only will you move to Philadelphia, you’ll bring your family, and you’ll stay there the rest of your life. You’ll never leave, and you’ll become a household word, no matter what else you do in your life.”
One could argue Vermeil has wanted to prove Murray right ever since, but it would have been a pretty big commitment if he didn’t like the area a little bit.
“Hiring the coach…that was the moment. You’re all in. If you hire the wrong guy, game over. People really, really care. The sports guys know that. Sports can change your life.
“And he is Philly. When he won the Super Bowl in St. Louis, Blue Cross had a big billboard. They didn’t even have his name on it. They just had him, congratulations on winning the Super Bowl. He became Philly.”
Jim Murray will tell you that he was probably the youngest GM in the NFL whose father didn’t own the team. He was a sports information director at Villanova when he was told about an opening as a publicist for the Eagles.
Murray was happy at Villanova…he claimed to be the richest guy in the world despite a vow of poverty…but applied halfheartedly for the position at the Eagles anyway. He got the job. Five years later, Leonard Tose fired GM Pete Retzlaff and promoted Murray. “I wasn’t afraid to look Leonard in the eye and tell him what I thought about anything, and he hired me to be the GM.”
It turned out to be a wise choice…Murray found the right words to persuade Vermeil, after all…but Murray was also a great organizer, and thanks partly to him, a house at 4032 Spruce Street received a makeover and became a place where emotionally drained parents of sick children could rest. Today there 365 Ronald McDonald Houses in 42 countries.
That all started when former Eagle Fred Hill asked his neighbor Stan Lane to organize a fundraiser to help Hill’s daughter, who had been diagnosed with leukemia.
“Eagles Fly For Leukemia’s first event was this big dinner. Stan put on a bash, really good stuff. Leonard says, get Murray over here. He said, check it out.
“I went to see Kim Hill’s doctor, the old St. Chris’s. He said there’s a woman, her name is Dr. Audrey Evans, she’s at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.”
Dr. Evans didn’t know what a Philadelphia Eagle was…she didn’t even own a television…so Murray had to explain that the owner had money and wanted to help. The two met with Tose.
“She said, we need these rooms called life islands. We give kids chemo, radiation, they have to be in a sterile environment. And he’s going, all right, how much? She says $50,000. How many rooms? Two. That’s $100,000. But Leonard, he was all in. He said, how much for the whole floor? And she didn’t hesitate, she said $1 million. And he didn’t hesitate. He said, I’ll tell you what, the Eagles pledge a million dollars. Jimmy will raise it.
“Are you kidding me? I have no clue, oh, what the …!”
Murray’s first idea, a telephone fundraiser during a televised game against the 49ers, raised a grand total of $1,800. The Eagles did a bit better with a telethon following that, raising $125,000, which Murray presented to Dr. Evans at the blue line of the Spectrum.
“The most amazing thing was, I just wanted to get her off my back! And in the most beautiful words that only a woman can say, she says well that’s great! Do you know what else we need?
“I said, we’re in for a mil, here’s a buck and a quarter, what else do you need?
“That’s where the House was born. She said, do you know what happens when I tell a family their child has this disease? They don’t hear one more word I say. They come from all over the world to this hospital. If we could get a room at the YMCA, something like that.
“I said, no, no. This is Philly. We’re the old neighborhood, we’re poor. We took care of everybody. You need a house.”
Murray made phone calls to ad execs and McDonald’s regional managers, who offered donations from sales of the new green milkshakes and in turn asked for the House to be named after the new clown mascot.
“God’s hand was in that,” Murray says, “because naming it after Ronald, the kid’s not afraid to walk through the door. One freezing night I was waiting for a ride outside, Ronald’s statue is in the front yard, and this man pulls up from Tennessee. Seven kids, I didn’t even know which kid was sick. They all were like, he’s in there!
“I love that it’s a Philly story. I love that Ray Kroc, Frank Rizzo are all standing there, (former Eagle) John Canuso, his kids are there, renovated the second house. All these things…the planets lined up. You can’t put limits on God, prayer, or the power of sports for good.”
Murray frequently talks about life coming full circle. Eagles fans may remember the hiring of Dick Vermeil, the impossible story of Vince Papale, and the Super Bowl appearance during his tenure. When Murray reflects, though, it’s rarely if ever about victories on a football field. It’s the continued success of the Ronald McDonald House, the lives saved by Eagles Fly For Leukemia, and Vermeil hosting fundraisers with former players still talking about what Coach meant to them. Vermeil adopted Philly as his home; the man who predicted that he would knew exactly why.
He has too many stories to fit into a 1,300-word article…Murray is currently writing a book with “McMiracle” as a working title…but they all revolve around that theme. He never stops marveling at the impact of sports, and the kind toughness of the city where he grew up.
“I never get used to it. I could tell you story after story,” he reflects fondly. “You talk about sports, playing with pain, when you see what these families go through. To me, it’s the Rocky statue. It’s Vince Papale, it’s Invincible. You don’t forget your roots, you don’t forget where you grew up. I don’t think it’s complicated. I think we make it complicated.
“I have been lucky enough to be a little part of it. My book could never get finished. Most of the stories will never be written. And they won’t all be happy endings.
“But you know what? Everybody will be pulling for them.”
I had never known that wheelchair basketball was as established as it was, with professional leagues and established teams, until JerseyMan asked me to cover it for their December 2014 issue. I had the pleasure of interviewing John DeAngelo, a player for the Magee Spokesmen of Philly, who filled me in on the rough and tumble nature of the sport. You can view the PDF from the article here.
Think wheelchair basketball is a small time, friendly competition? Think again.
At the Carousel House in Fairmount Park, the Magee Spokesmen are wheeling laps around the basketball court at the start of their weekly practice session.
After a few dozen circuits, they gather at one end. They begin start and stop drills, rolling out to the center of the court, stopping on a dime, executing hard 180-degree turns, and pushing back in the direction of the net.
Their coach, Eric Kreeb—who by day is a kitchen manager at Chickie’s and Pete’s—stands by and watches, smiling and shouting words of encouragement. Slide right, he shouts, turn and get on the line. The drills continue. Men push, turn, and then go from one end to the court to the other and then back…backwards. They pant, strain and sweat.
Back at the line, they’re huffing a bit now. “Turning left this time,” shouts Kreeb. His direction is met with some mild groans of protest. But the Spokesmen oblige, rolling out, turning left and rolling back. To some, it’s a competition. “Get your money!” one player shouts repeatedly. Forward and backward, turning wheelchairs left and right, drill after drill after drill. The practice is almost an hour old, and no one has yet touched a basketball.
Finally, they start shooting, taking turns at the foul line. As they shoot, two players practice defending one another, maneuvering a specially designed chair with an ability that clearly isn’t learned overnight.
The team splits into two groups and gather at either end of the court. A scrimmage game begins. Wheelchairs clang into each other as players jockey for a position. Fast breaks happen, as do lay-ups, fadeaway baskets and rebounds. Players even occasionally fall out of their wheelchairs, but such incidents only briefly delay the action, and they are back up quickly.
One can only imagine the toll a whole game of this—or six whole games of this—would take on someone who isn’t built up for the battle.
“We prepare for our games at practice,” says Kreeb. “We do several stamina building drills, diagram plays, go over defense, and discuss strategies of attack against our upcoming opponents. The conditioning is particularly important because we play in tournaments. Most tournaments you play five to six games in two days.”
This is no playful, recreational diversion. It’s a real, honest team practice. It is the grueling, repetitive effort that athletes put in that makes their feats on game day look effortless. The Magee Spokesmen are professional athletes. It’s obvious by the way they miraculously avoid collisions and effortlessly land passes into teammates’ hands.
The focus of wheelchair basketball isn’t the wheelchair. It’s the basketball.
The words “wheelchair basketball” to most people probably bring to mind images of a few guys sitting around shooting baskets in an ultra-friendly lightweight competition. The idea of it being an international sport, with leagues, divisions, and tournaments, would likely come as a surprise.
The sport began in veterans’ hospitals shortly after World War II, as paralyzed war heroes adjusted to their new life. As the sport grew and teams emerged across the country, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association was formed. Today the NWBA has over 200 teams in 22 conferences, many of them sponsored by local NBA teams.
Internationally, since the formation of the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), the sport has even more notoriety, particularly in places like France, Australia and Canada. Australia is the current IWBF men’s champion; Canada’s team took the women’s wheelchair basketball title this year.
John DeAngelo, a player for the Spokesmen, took the time to educate me a bit about the sport. Born with a congenital affliction, he has been playing wheelchair basketball since the age of 12.
“The first thing, leaving basketball aside, is just getting used to a wheelchair,” he says. “It sounds easy, but maneuvering a wheelchair is not as easy as you might think. Before you learn anything else about ice hockey, if you can’t skate, you can’t do anything. The players who really excel, it’s like the chair is almost an extension of their body.
“Then you start to throw in the sport part, dribbling a basketball and learning how to shoot and maneuver around people that are trying to defend you. The mechanics are the same way; you just take the legs out of it. The upper body mechanics are the same. There are rule differences in wheelchair basketball that change things a little bit, but you still have to dribble.
“The thing that you start to notice, and that’s what everyone has to learn in practice, is that instead of just a body banging around, you’ll hear a little more metal crashing into each other. That’s when you know someone’s comfortable with it, whereas there are guys that are very apprehensive about smashing into something.
“They’re the rookies!” DeAngelo says with a laugh.
The NWBA, NBA and NCAA are more similar than they are different.
The rules are the same as in the NBA; court dimensions and basket height are the same. There are some rule differences; traveling in wheelchair basketball consists of touching one’s wheels twice after dribbling the ball. There is no double dribble rule, as DeAngelo notes: “That allows you more maneuverability, so you’re not constantly dribbling, or else you really wouldn’t go. Some people can do that really well, but this allows you to maneuver faster and keep the pace going.”
Another difference is that with the nature of wheelchair basketball being such that teams can’t trade players or acquire free agents…players generally play for the team where they live…the best teams become the teams that retain the same players long enough to gel.
“In any team sport,” DeAngelo says, “the longer you keep a nucleus together, the better that team is going to wind up being. We’ve played against teams constantly who’ve grown; a lot of the players were not that good and all of a sudden they start to gel and get better. Year after year you see them grow and they become a powerhouse. North Carolina had always been a good team, and last year was finally their year where they just clicked.”
The NWBA has seven divisions, ranked by the level of competition. The Magee Spokesmen play in Division III, where DeAngelo says most teams are. Division II, he says, is an entirely different animal.
“You have teams out there who are competitive, you have teams with players that are just out there playing, and that’s great. They love to play, they know they’re not that good but they’ll travel to a couple of tournaments and just play. It’s not all about trying to win a championship to them.
“The more competitive you get, yeah, it gets dangerous,” he says.
Yes, DeAngelo has sustained some injuries in his career. In that regard as well, wheelchair basketball is no different from NBA basketball.
“I was playing this past weekend down in Virginia Beach, going for a rebound, another guy’s coming from the other team and wham! We just smashed into each other. I took the brunt of it, I’m not the biggest guy, and I just tumbled to the ground.
“It sounds bad, sometimes it’s bad, but it’s just part of the sport. You’ve got metal on metal, you get run over sometimes, fingers get jammed in wheels, things like that absolutely happen. I’ve had broken fingers, broken arm, several concussions, it’s pretty brutal.”
Today there are over 100,000 wheelchair basketball players worldwide. Most, like DeAngelo, play in organized leagues with tournaments and championships. Some play for national and international titles, which DeAngelo has also done. And the growth of the sport has created a competitive outlet for those at every level who see themselves not as disabled, but as athletes who do things differently.
DeAngelo has represented Team USA, but he’s also happy to have been part of a growing competitive sport.
“Putting on a USA jersey and playing overseas was probably the biggest thing. I did get a chance to play in two national championships for Temple. But for me, the thing I’m most proud about is that there are more programs now for younger kids, so when they’re starting out there’s something structured.
“I was 12 playing with 30-something year-old guys. I had to learn a lot of stuff really quick. Now there’s so much out there, and basketball was a stepping stone for a lot of other things. There are so many sports now for wheelchair athletes that it’s mind boggling.
“It’s a great thing to keep in shape. You slow down a bit like with anything, but the one good thing is that you can be a competitive player no matter what your age is, as long as your body can take it.”
And wheelchair basketball players will get run over, fall out of their chairs, get their fingers jammed in wheels and endure broken arms and concussions, and get back in the game for as long as their bodies can take it.
It’s what athletes do.
The Best of The Best – Wheelchair Basketball Hall of Fame
There is a Wheelchair Basketball Hall of Fame, founded in 1973. The NWBA website lists the members and the rules of eligibility—players must compete for a minimum of five years, be a part of an All-American team, and meet other requirements as determined by the voting committee. Non-competitors must give at least 12 years to the sport, as a coach, administrator or supporter.
Among the noteworthy members:
Tim Nugent – Inducted in the inaugural year of the Hall. Nugent was the coach of the first college wheelchair basketball team, the Illinois Gizz Kids, for 12 years. The team won the NWBA championship in 1953. But more importantly, Nugent founded the NWBA and served as its commissioner for 24 years. Today the NWBA has an endowment fund in Nugent’s name.
William Johnson – Also inducted in 1973, Johnson is listed as being the “Best to ever play the game” on the NWBA website. He played for a Long Beach Flying Wheels team that won five straight championships, and he also played for three U.S. Paralympic teams. Johnson later served as the commissioner for the Southern California conference of the NWBA.
Dan DeDeo – Inducted in 1976. DeDeo was one of the first ever certified officials of the NWBA; he officiated in the Eastern Conference (EWBC) for 14 years and later became the EWBC Officials Chairman and the Pacific Coast Commissioner.
Sharon Hedrick – Inducted in 1994, Hedrick was the first woman to be inducted into the NWBA Hall. Hedrick played for the University of Illinois team, winning six MVP awards and seven team championships. She later won medals playing for three U.S. Paralympics teams…the one year she sat out, the U.S. failed to bring a medal home.
Wheelchair basketball players generally don’t use their own wheelchairs; they play in specialized wheelchairs designed for sports. The sports chairs are made of titanium, don’t fold, and have their wheels angled for more camber and easier mobility.
DeAngelo describes the differences. “Typically, the standard chair, a lot of them are made with titanium, so they’re lightweight, durable. Back in the day when we were first playing there were these old-fashioned spokes that you’d see on a bicycle.
“The biggest difference in the chairs is that less is more. Some people would ride them around in the streets, but you wouldn’t necessarily see that. For my wheelchair, I have these bicycle tires on there for everyday use. For the basketball court they are very thin ones and they would get torn up on the streets.”
They have safety features as well, like the additional small wheels in the rear. “When I first was coming up the biggest thing was that your chair would flip backwards. Someone would hit you in the back of the tire with their foot pedals and your chair would flip right over.
“Now the chairs are made with what we call a fifth wheel or sometimes six wheels on the back of the frame, it’s kind of like training wheels. You still might flip backwards, but it’s not going to be as quick or as pronounced as it would have been.”
The Thrill of Wheelchair Basketball Victory
Wheelchair basketball has grown quickly in the war torn country of Afghanistan, where a great many civilians have lost limbs to mines and ordnance that are literally everywhere. Recently the International Committee of the Red Cross and U.S. basketball player and trainer Jess Markt began organizing sports programs to help amputees.
The response has been overwhelming…there are hundreds of men and women playing wheelchair basketball now in an organized league.
In June of 2012, after just two years of the program, the ICRC held its first national tournament. It featured teams from four Afghan cities: Mazar-I Sharif, Kabul, Herat, and Maimana. Thanks to the “man of the match”, then eighteen-year-old Shapoor Sorkhabi, the Maimana team triumphed over Herat in the final, 14-4.
After playing for only four years, Afghanistan now has a national team that competed for the first time internationally in May. The ICRC website features profiles of some of the players that competed in Italy, talking about the difference wheelchair basketball has made in their lives.
Says Sorkhabi, “My mother tried to discourage my love of basketball, saying I should put my studies first. But I persisted and started playing four years ago at the physical rehabilitation centre in Maimana.
“I played in a wheelchair basketball tournament and was made ‘man of the match’. After that my mother became proud of me. I was proud of myself, too.”
Jeff Holman is a member of the Holman family, a name you’ve heard if you’ve ever shopped for a car in South Jersey. But he’s made his mark coaching high school tennis, with over 2,000 victories to his credit. I interviewed him for the October 2013 issue of JerseyMan. You can view the PDF of this article here.
Expanding His Roots
Jeff Holman is a member of the Holman car sales family, but he’s made his own mark in high school tennis coaching.
Mention the name “Holman” to a South Jersey native and chances are a car dealership will come to mind. The name has been selling automobiles in the Garden State for nearly as long as automobiles have existed. Most readers of this publication have probably either bought a car from a Holman or know someone who has.
But over the last three and a half decades, Jeff Holman has achieved what could be called legendary status in a realm that has nothing to do with Cadillacs.
By the time you read this article, Holman, who coaches both girls and boys tennis at Haddonfield High School, will likely have passed an astonishing 2,000 victories—both teams are within striking distance of 1,000 wins each. The boys’ teams have won nine state group championships; the girls’ team has won 18 state group titles and three Tournament of Championship crowns—often against larger schools with bigger talent pools.
He’s gotten quite a bit of recognition himself; 20 Coach of the Year awards, and membership in five Halls of Fame, including Camden County Athletics and the New Jersey High School Hall of Fame, are a small sampling of the countless awards and honors he’s received.
As successful as the family is in car sales, Jeff has proven that the Holmans aren’t a one-trick pony.
As a young lad, Holman probably thought he would sell cars when he grew up. He once wrote a “future career” paper on being a car dealer, which given his background was probably an easy assignment. But he says no undue expectations were placed on him by his Jersey famous family.
“I have two siblings; my sister Mindy is now the CEO of Holman Enterprises, and my brother Steve is a cabinet maker in Dorset, Vermont. Mostly, my parents encouraged me to do what I wanted to do. I had good teachers that encouraged me to get into education.”
Holman was a decent player at Haddonfield High, known for not rushing the net and simply wearing opponents down. But he knew he wasn’t destined for stardom on the court either. He attended college at Princeton, where the talent was, to put it mildly, substantial.
“The #1 varsity player at Princeton (Bill Colson) was ranked ahead of Jimmy Connors. My roommate was a two time Nebraska state champion; he wasn’t even a consistent starter. I was realistic enough, a good high school player, but I never thought I could play professionally.”
After graduating from Princeton, Holman returned to Haddonfield as an English teacher, and served as an assistant coach on the girls’ basketball team. Haddonfield being a small school, there weren’t enough tennis courts for two teams, so the girls’ season was moved to the fall in 1976. Their coach, Ellie Kind, was also the field hockey coach, so Holman took over the tennis team when the two schedules merged.
Two years later, Ken Grabert, the boys’ coach, “decided that driving the bus to events paid more than coaching, which was correct”, and Holman took over the boys’ team. 35 years later, though he’s now a guidance counselor, he is still on the court with young people most afternoons, steadily adding to the impressive win totals and titles.
Leaders in any endeavor will often tell you that success depends on choosing the right personnel. In high school sports, this presents a significant obstacle. Coaches don’t have the option of recruiting the best players from a 500-mile radius. The kids in town are what they’ve got.
In this environment, Holman magnanimously gives some credit for his success to local tennis clubs as a place where parents teach the game to kids. But he also piled another challenge on top of recruitment limitations: a no-cut rule. Every student who signs up will have a chance to represent Haddonfield tennis. Jeff explains the reasoning:
“One of the best players I ever had was a girl named Phoebe Figland, she was part of the 1980 team that won the first ever Tournament of Champions. Back then we had four courts, I had to keep 16 girls, and Phoebe as a freshman was number 17 so I had to cut her. Luckily she wasn’t one of those kids that gets discouraged easily; she came back and earned a starting varsity position, and went on to become a Division I player at the University of Richmond.
“Maybe in Phoebe’s case it gave her more inspiration to become as good as she did. But I think other people might have quit. Since that time I’ve always looked for a way to keep everyone involved and not cut people.”
That means arranging more matches with more teams, which Holman does. “In our program we have 40-50 players, and schools we play against may have 10-15. So by having a lot of matches and a separate rotation system, even though our team is bigger, all of the players get to play in matches. If they are all involved and can have a fun experience and see improvement, they’ll want to keep on playing and getting better.”
If you’re looking to ferret out a nugget from him about how to successfully coach high school sports, that is mostly what Holman will tell you. Keep all the kids involved, having fun, and playing tough competition. Encouragement and positive reinforcement. Not much about fundamentals.
“The mechanics, a lot of that is learned in the offseason. It’s hard to change someone’s mechanics during the season. They might get worse before they get better. There are outstanding professionals in the area that our students have gone to, and these teachers have instilled some mechanical knowledge of the game.”
So instead of teaching backhands or “getting into the zone”, Holman’s focus is on arranging as many matches as he can with quality opponents, and separating practices into groups so that all of the players get time in with the coach.
He even drives the team bus. It’s a gesture that appears to be a show of humility or bonding, but it is actually rooted in practicality: “If the school doesn’t have to pay a driver, then tennis, which has no transportation costs, enables Haddonfield to play an ambitious schedule. We can go to North Jersey or I can schedule more matches in a week. In this era of budget constraints, not having to play a bus driver really frees up our program.”
Whatever it takes. “I think it’s important to convey that this team is very important to me and I’m going to work harder than anyone else. And that whatever I ask the players to do, I’m going to do the same thing or more in terms of commitment.”
Holman’s proudest achievement? After coaching 70-plus seasons, he has trouble picking a favorite memory. “I guess when you do something the first time it stands out. On the girls’ side I think back to a team in 1980, the first year New Jersey held the Tournament of Champions, when the state champions of all the different divisions have a playoff. The 1980 team won that initial tournament. The boys kept falling short in state tournaments; finally in 1983 that group of players was the first Haddonfield team that won a state title.
“Haddonfield has always been a very successful athletic school at everything, but there have only been a couple of teams that have won a Tournament of Champions. The girls’ tennis team has done it three times now. It’s a very rare achievement.”
Holman tempers any appearance of boasting. “It’s nice to win championships, and we’ve done our share of that, but above all we’re trying to instill a love of the sport, and in their later lives they are still playing, and that maybe part of the reason was the Haddonfield program.”
One of the winningest high school sports coaches in the country seems reluctant to suggest that what he does results in more than young people enjoying the game of tennis. But he’s undoubtedly played a role in the character building of many young people. To teach them that they will have a chance to get in the game, to play against the best, and to be able to challenge opponents with unfair advantages and still win, undoubtedly leaves a stamp of confidence on an adolescent mind where self-esteem can often be in short supply.
Especially for a kid that might not have otherwise made a team of 16.
Jeff Holman doesn’t have an apparent personality for car sales. He is a soft spoken, even-keeled fellow, highly regarded by all who know him, but there is still a cauldron of quiet determination in him. If it weren’t for Haddonfield’s reputation as a high school tennis powerhouse, you wouldn’t expect this quiet gentleman to bring a team from a small school that can whip your big school’s behind.
And for several generations of Haddonfield tennis playing alumni, the Holman name means something more than an established place to buy a nice automobile.
The South Jersey Men’s Senior Baseball League is a haven for men in their advanced years who still can and want to play some baseball. I wrote this piece for the August 2012 issue of JerseyMan; you can view the PDF from the magazine here.
The Old Ball Game
After 20 years, the South Jersey Men’s Senior Baseball League is stronger than ever.
On a picture-perfect Sunday morning at Doc Cramer Field in Manahawkin, the Hammonton Black Sox are playing hooky from church to play baseball, in a time-honored tradition that a Benevolent Supreme Being isn’t likely to mind.
With his team shorthanded, manager Mike Dunleavy must take the field and has enough to keep him busy, so he lets this observer keep score in their game against the Ocean Pirates. At one point a Sox player slaps a weak chop that travels about ten feet but successfully moves the runner on first over to second. There is a dispute over whether it counts as a sacrifice. “You’d be surprised at how much these guys look at their stats,” Dunleavy tells a writer who, as a former softball player, is sure he wouldn’t be surprised at all.
The team has several batters hitting over .400, but they’ve managed little offense in this game. “Junkballers,” the manager says, of his hitters’ performance against the Pirates’ Jeff Martin. “We always have trouble with them.”
In the bottom of the ninth, he calls a conference on the mound with his pitcher Tom King, to figure out how to pitch the Pirates’ Eddie Titley with a runner on second and the game tied. Over King’s objections, Dunleavy orders Titley to be put on intentionally. King, who has pitched a fine game, walks the next two batters, and the Pirates take a 3-2 victory over the Black Sox with two runs in the ninth. Despite its painful obviousness, the manager feels compelled to point it out: “Tough loss.”
Following the game there is a brief shouting match in the dugout between Dunleavy and King over the decision to walk Titley, which is fairly quickly smoothed over. It’s not a contract year, after all.
“From eight to eighty, the game is the same,” Dunleavy says. “It’s still about pitching and defense. There’s nothing I can tell these guys that they don’t already know.”
And so it goes in the senior fast pitch baseball world.
Dunleavy has managed Hammonton’s team in the 45+ American Division for seven years. When his team is shorthanded he will take the field, and occasionally he takes the mound to pitch. At his advanced age, he isn’t stealing bases or hitting bombs or overpowering hitters, but like most pitchers he can still pitch a successful game if he keeps the ball down. The Pirates, he says, are their friendly arch rivals—the Black Sox had lost to them two years before in the championship game, and had beaten them last year for the championship. It’s not Yankees-Red Sox, but it still fires up both teams.
On July 15 of this year, the South Jersey Men’s Senior Baseball League celebrated its 20th anniversary at Campbell’s Field in Camden. In a brief on-field ceremony, league president Lou Marshall and vice president Neil Hourahan presented league founder Bill Curzie with a plaque, as a thank you for being the indefatigable spark for the SJMSBL and a key ingredient of the glue that has held the league together for 20 years. Whether it is attributable to the league’s success is not certain, but Curzie does not appear to have aged at all in two decades, and at 77 still looks fit enough to play two.
In 1992, at the age of 57, Curzie met up with players of a Pennsylvania division of the MSBL, and asked about setting up a fast pitch baseball league in South Jersey, which had none at the time. National league president Steve Sigler enthusiastically gave Curzie permission, and off he went.
With the help of a story in the Burlington County Times—that began with the words “Curzie is serious”—Curzie spread the word quickly. It turned out that South Jersey was heavily populated with thirty-, forty-, fifty- and even sixty-somethings who still wanted to play ball—and didn’t mind faster pitches or nine innings, the way the game was meant to be played. In less time than it takes a superstar free agent to say “it’s not about the money”, there were enough players for four teams, and the league began with six.
With the help of Curzie’s equally dedicated assistant commissioner Gary Brown, the SJMSBL kept growing, and is now the second largest senior fast pitch league in the nation, with over 1,200 players in four age brackets. There’s been a 25% growth in the 18-year-old group, which bodes well for the long term health of the league. They are adding a 55+ division next season.
Curzie shares the story of his standing firm on the league moving to wooden bats, after the national disgrace of aluminum bats had been the norm for some years in nearly every league. Today, most fast pitch leagues are back to using wooden bats, and Curzie humbly accepts some of the credit for that. When asked the ridiculous question of why wooden bats over aluminum, he has a simple response: “It’s just baseball, man!” He does elaborate further, though. With the reflexes of players at this age, aluminum bats are more dangerous, and besides, there are too many cheap hits with aluminum.
Today Marshall and Hourahan now handle the running of the league. The list of administrative tasks is long. In the beginning of the season, Marshall must be in continuous contact with the national headquarters of the MSBL, ensure that fees are collected, manage schedule changes, work with the umpires’ organization, deal with the inevitable problems that teams will have with the schedule, and arrange the All-Star weekend in Camden.
It’s a lot of work maintaining the league and playing on top of it—a full time job, Marshall admits. It’s all worth it, of course. He echoes the sentiment of the players on the field: “you feel like you’re eight again.”
There aren’t hot dogs, exploding scoreboards or the roar of the crowds. You won’t see players at the level of Andrew McCutchen or Mark Teixeira here. But you might appreciate, as these fellows do, how difficult it really is to throw out a baserunner attempting to steal or to turn a double play. Dunleavy says, “Hunter Pence can throw out a guy at third base. We would need a couple of extra throws to get the ball there.”
Perhaps, but that’s an exaggeration that doesn’t give credit to the skills many of these fellows have.
They wear uniforms and cleats. They steal bases. They take advantage of fundamental mistakes. They throw the ball around the horn after a strikeout. They use leg braces and pine tar. Balks and infield flies are called. There are rundowns, pickoffs, and lots of spitting. There is pressure to win, real trophies, and real statistics displayed online that people from here to Cambodia can see.
Some players even look for that little bit of rule-bending edge. Marshall tells the story of a pitcher loading a ball with tobacco juice and snot; eventually he even bought a container of K-Y at the store with his wife present—assuring her it was for his “other slider”.
Being an umpire, which pays in the neighborhood of $80 a game, is just as thankless a job as it is at any level of baseball. Players gripe about calls throughout the game, which the ump, who wants to appear professional just as the players do, mostly takes in stride. Between innings an umpire shares stories about rare times where he’s ejected players. One involved a thrown bat making a loud clang; another involved foul language directed at him. But most times, he says, if he’s got to be out in the heat, then so do they.
The SJMSBL is a haven for men refusing to age—who desire to compete on the highest level they can, relive the playing days of their youth, and many times to do both.
Anyone can sign up and play. It’s a time commitment; players give up a day of their week, in this case a Sunday morning. They’ll need legs too; they’re going to be running the full 90 feet between the bases. Some of them will get hurt in battle; many of the Black Sox’s best are currently on the DL. During the interview, Marshall—who still plays while running the league—shows me elbow scabs from sliding.
Never once does it occur to any of them that none of the games will be on television, that they won’t be driving a Porsche with their contract, or that it’s highly unlikely anyone besides an insurance company will ask for their signature. They are playing a boy’s game again, and loving every second of it. Who wouldn’t leave it all on the field?
Dunleavy remarks: “I have seen in the faces of the older guys what men’s senior baseball has done for their spirit. They never thought that they would ever get the chance to actually suit up and play competitively again.”
From eight to eighty, the love of the game is the same too.