Fun and Games To a 10-year-old who knew his sports backward and forward, a guy named Otto had special appeal

March 05, 2001

Excuse me while I retrieve my childlike sense of wonder and
become 10 years old again, and fall back in love with sports.

I remember sitting with my mom and dad and brothers and sister at
Minnesota Twins games in Metropolitan Stadium--side by side in the
bleachers, all seven of us, descending in height like organ
pipes. My brothers and I ate peanuts, and the brown husks adhered
to our teeth, and when Rod Carew came to the plate we grinned
like jack-o'-lanterns.

We looked like the NHL stars whose pictures we scissored out of
Goal! magazine and taped to a wood-paneled wall of our basement:
Bobby Clarke had a smile like Roman ruins. Mike Bossy wore a
sport coat that was cut (to judge by the pattern) from casino
carpeting. Bobby Hull's hairpiece was something you'd fish from a
clogged drain. But they were gods.

And the names! The NHL of the '70s had Cesare Maniago, Guy
Lafleur, Jude Drouin. Gilles Gilbert was pronounced "Zheel
Zheelbair." At my school--Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in
Bloomington, Minn.--Father Gilbert became, to me and my friends,
Father Zheelbair. The best name to say was Yvan Cournoyer of the
Montreal Canadiens. You scored in street hockey and threw up
your hands and shouted "Ee-vonnn CORN-why-ayyyy!"

Father Zheelbair was our favorite priest because he let us out of
Mass early once, when the Vikings had a playoff game. He told us
to bow our heads and pray for God's blessing, and then he asked
Our Heavenly Father to intercede against the Los Angeles Rams.
Then we went home and turned on the TV to see a righteous God
smite Jack Youngblood.

We spent all summer trying to be Rod Carew. Rodney Cline (the
doctor who delivered Rod Carew was named Rodney Cline) Carew, we
knew from his baseball card, was born on a train in the Panama
Canal zone. A man, a plan, a canal--Panama.

A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same backward and
forward. The first sentence ever spoken was a palindrome: "Madam,
I'm Adam." Or so it said in a book of word games that my mom
checked out of the library for me.

Words, I discovered, could be made to do anything, and though I
rolled my eyes when Mom brought more books, she knew I was
thrilled. If I stumbled on a big word and asked my dad what it
was, he would peer like Kilroy over his newspaper and say, "Look
it up."

Once I asked my dad if he knew what a palindrome is. When he said
no, what is it, I said, "Look it up." But he didn't. He just shot
me a look.

To be Rod Carew you had to steal thinly sliced salami from Mike
McCollow's mom's fridge and cram a wad of it into your right
cheek. (Go hang a salami, I'm a lasagna hog: That was the best
palindrome I ever read.) Salami made your spit look like tobacco
juice. Once I asked my big brother if that was a jawbreaker in
Rod Carew's cheek--an Everlasting Gobstopper, maybe, that would
turn his tongue blue. But he said, "No, you spaz, it's Red Man
tobacco."

They kept Red Man tobacco behind the counter at Pik-Kwik, where
we bought baseball cards and Everlasting Gobstoppers. Red Man had
an Indian chief on the pouch. If you found an Indian chief on a
Tootsie Pop wrapper, you got free Tootsie Pops for life.

The Indian chief on the Chicago Blackhawks jersey was the coolest
thing in sports. Tony Esposito was my favorite hockey player. I
got his Blackhawks goalie mask for Christmas. It featured his
"facsimile signature." I picked it out of the Sears catalogue.

I watched football on TV with my dad and brothers. One day Dad
peered from behind his paper and pointed at the Oakland Raiders
center--at the name on the back of his jersey: OTTO. My dad leaned
out of his chair and stage-whispered, "Palindrome." Then he
disappeared behind his paper, and I smiled and got gooseflesh
because my brothers didn't know what my dad and I were talking
about, and we would never tell them about palindromes.

I was born in Chicago, and we went back to visit every other
summer. I was a Cubs fan, but I didn't get to Wrigley Field until
I was 14. By that age I was embarrassed to be seen in public with
my parents. So the first time I entered the Friendly Confines my
knees buckled, my stomach flip-flopped and my heart went like a
paint shaker--while, on the outside, I acted like being there was
no big deal.

Same thing happens when I go there now.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)