Racquetball . . . it was a good run

Fair warning; this goes counter to all advice about blog posts . . . it’s long, it’s of limited interest, and it’s about me.  I don’t expect many will read it all, especially since it’s aimed at  people who inquired about my plans for racquetball.  

What I recount below is faithful to what I remember . . . which means it could be wrong.  Feel free to correct me if you remember different.

Warning: some images  contained herein may be disturbing to some.

In 1983 I stopped playing tennis.  I saw no point to it; a few years earlier I had discovered something much better.  Racquetball.  There is no comparison.  Racquetball is faster, more explosive, and you don’t have to stop play every few minutes to chase stray shots.

When I started playing racquetball the sport was near its peak.  Subsequently, it went into decline.  Some blame me for taking up the sport . . . That might be true;  I’m told I’m an annoying player to go up against.  

One of my two racquets - the E-Force Lethal (I like the name)

At various times people have classified my game as “not real racquetball”.  It’s not just the fact I hit unconventional shots (touch shots from the back court, z-shots, dinks, etc.), but I don’t swing correctly, don’t wear a glove. . . .

Showing a newly wrapped handle and one after a few hours of playing

. . . I don’t change my grip from shot-to-shot, and probably other stuff I cannot recall at the moment.  

Conventional wisdom says tight strings for accuracy, loose strings for power . . . I think the recommended string tension for my racquets is between 28 and 34 pounds tension . . . I have mine strung at a low 24 pounds . . . for accuracy; it helps me control the ball for my touch shots.  Because they are strung so loose, I put eyelets (string-savers) at every string joint, otherwise the string would only last me a month or two (fraying from the strings rubbing together).

My strings after two years of playing

Close-up of the fraying strings and the string savers

These strings are over two years old, and they are almost ready to be replaced . . . actually, they would last a while longer, as they are made from a bundle of 2,000 fibers.  Said fibers are designed to fray.  Yes, eventually they snap.

My Lethal "weapons"

Heck, I don’t even wear regular goggles . . . http://www.imaskusa.com/ 

Edited to add:  I felt bad that I forgot to put in the picture of my shield.  No fogging, light enough to forget it’s there, yet strong enough to protect me from even the hardest-hit balls, an the occasional racquet.  

Definitively not a chick magnet . . .
Definitively not a chick magnet . . .

I never understood why people put up with glasses which fog up (wasted many a minutes waiting for opponents to wipe their glasses clean after blaming them for missing the shot), and when hit can still cut their cheeks and the bridge of their noses.  Well, maybe I understood a little;  they were vain, and actually cared about their looks. 

I will sing in praise of the i-Mask to the four corners of the universe (if it had corners). I chanced across them when it was mandated players had to wear proper eye protection (I started out like everyone else, wearing lensless goggles), and knew right away they were the only possible solution to safety and comfort.

I foolishly imagined everyone would be wearing them before long. Other than one other guy in my Tuesday league, I’m the only one I’ve ever seen wear an i-Mask.  In part, that’s what convinced me people were foolish (and wrong).

Unparalleled protection and comfort for the small price of looking goofy.
Unparalleled protection and comfort for the small price of looking goofy.

Anyway, my unorthodox style of play is no surprise to those who know me; I like doing stuff my own way.  I did the same in golf.  I do the same in everything I try.  Don’t get me wrong; I learn the way one should do things, and then adapt it to my character.

In racquetball it means hitting the unexpected shot.  It mean not playing defensive.  It means going for the kill nearly every time I swing at the ball.  It means taking the low-percentage shot.   It means being willing to lose playing the type of game I want to play, as opposed to winning by playing a “smart” game.  It means if something is not working, to keep trying it until it does (and losing the game in the process).  Think Tin Cup.

They look ready, don't they?  Quiet power, sneaky accuracy, tuned to my "weird" playing style.

I took up the sport in the early 80’s.  I mostly played with two people.  One was for fun, and we never kept score.  Not so the other.  I only had one request of the other guy; don’t let up.  If I was going to lose 0-15, so be it.  I did that a lot.  As far as I remember, I did not win a game, or came close to winning a game for something like a year or so.  But I improved.

There is a problem with playing the same people.  Your game adapts to one style of play, so in 1983 I joined the Engineering Analysis Racquetball League.  Two years later I won the “C” flight, and got my first E.A.R.L.

The 1985 E. A. R. L. - "C" Division

It was a ladder league, where you would have the chance to jump levels as you improved.  It was a tough league.  I won the “C” Flight again in 1986 . . .

The 1986 E. A. R. L. - "C" Division

. . . 1988 . . .

The 1988 E. A. R. L. - "C" Division

I remember winning a few others, but sometime there were no trophies.  The last “C” Flight trophy I have is for 1993.

1993 E. A. R. L. - "C" Division

1993 E. A. R. L.  - "C" Division

Wow . . . ten years and I did not improve, did not move up a level, did nothing but stagnate . . . and played a lot of golf (both for fun and on a league), and put in seventy-hours-weeks with the business I owned.

My memory is a little fuzzy, but by the mid ’90s my focus had changed.  In part it was due to meeting, and playing with, a very good RB player at what was then the Vic Tanny Executive Club in Bloomfield, Michigan (they were eventually bought by Bally Fitness, which is now about to declare bankruptcy).

I am sad to say I do not remember the player’s name.  He had been nationally ranked, had won a number of titles, and was then in his 50s.  We played for fun, with him trying to keep me under three points a game, then five points a game, then ten.  My game improved, and sometime in the late 90’s I landed into the “A” flight of my Tuesday league with both feet, jumping the “B” flight before I could win it.  The “A” flight was tough, and for a number of years the best I managed was to capture third or second.

By 2000 I had cut back golf, cut back all other exercise, and pretty much played racquetball.  Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning I would irritate players at Courtland Racquet Club; Tuesday nights I would irritate players at Warren Racquetball Club and the Engineering Analysis Racquetball League, and Thursday night I was back at Courtland to irritate players in what was then known as the Thursday General Motors Mens league.

2003 was a good and bad year . . .

In January I took second in the Motor City Rollout . . .

Motor City Rollout - 2nd Place, Men's "B", January 2003

In March  . . .

What could this be?

. . . I took the Michigan State Single’s Championship, “B” Division.

March 2003 - Michigan State Singles Championship - Men's "B" Division

Yes, you are reading the blog of the 2003 Michigan State Single’s “B” Racquetball champion!  Sorry, no autographs.  Coincidentally, I beat the perennial champion of my Thursday GM League for the title.

In April, after many years of coming in second,  I captured the E.A.R.L. trophy for the “A” Flight in my Tuesday league.

2002 - 2003 Season E. A. R. L. - "A" Division

The trophy says “2002”, but it signifies the 2002-2003 season (September to April).  It remains one of my favorite memories . . .

“Wait just a cotton-picking second!! Why were you playing the State Singles in “B” if you were winning”A’s” in the league?”

Good question.  The state tournament is a whole different ballgame.  The level of competition jumps way up.

July 2003 saw me combine two of my favorite pastimes . . . driving and racquetball.  I grabbed my racquets, and headed to a tournament St. Paul, Minnesota.   We took the long-way-round . . . heading up to the Upper Peninsula, and then across it to Minnesota.

Lake Michigan Sandpoint Lighthouse - Escanaba, MI

Remains of a Hydro-electric Power Plant  - Minneapolis, Minnesota

This is either the Minnesota or Mississippi River - I don't remember which

One of the Locks - again, I don't remember the river

Interesting buildings

I was attending my first NMRA (National Masters Racquetball Association) tournament.  The above pictures were all shot after I hurt myself during the first game of the first match.  I slipped on some sweat on the court (not mine), rolled over my leg and hip, and ended up on my back.  I might have passed out momentarily when I hit my head.  I could not walk very well, and withdrew from the tournament.  We walked around the city a bit, me limping, and then we drove home.  I sat on a bag of ice as I drove.

Imagine my surprise a few days later . . .

. . . apparently I ripped my hamstring when I rolled over my leg.  It ripped on top, and at the bottom.  Basically I had no control of where my foot landed.  Surgery held little promise for recovery (I still can’t jog).  I started doing exercises.  In August I started to play again.  I could not do any fast moves because I could not control my right foot (I fell a number of times).  In a silly way, it helped improve my game.  Accuracy and anticipation were the name of the game.  Try to be very accurate, work on the touch shot, and move before the other player hit so that I could be where I needed to be before he hit.

In September I started the leagues again, mainly hoping to enjoy playing and be a little competitive.  That fall a friend asked if I’d enter with him in the Halloween double’s tournament.  I had not played much double’s, but sure, why not?

My first Double's Tournament

On a roll, I also entered the Thanksgiving tournament . . .

2004 continued on a good note (not business-wise . . . we were already well along in the process of closing down Hartwick – June would see us lock the office doors for the last time).  In April I repeated my Tuesday league win . . .

2003 E. A. R. L. - "A" Division

. . . and took first place in the Thursday league as well.

Thursday Night GM League - "A" Flight - First PLace - 2003 - 2004

I continued to play, but did not rejoin the leagues in the fall . . . I knew I would be moving.  I did not know where, but I knew it would be before the end of 2004.

We moved to Colorado, and did not play again until April of 2005 or so, when I joined Lynmar Racquet Club.  

Lynmar had the best RB courts I ever played on; great floors, and great walls.  It took me a while to get used to the liveliness of the ball (higher elevation), and running out of breath (higher elevation).  It also had very good players.  Lynmar had a long racquetball history, and boasted nationally ranked players in its membership.  I got beat by very tall, very quick, very accurate, very hard-hitting players.  I loved it, and I improved.

Side note to good players: invest the time to play with lower-ranked players.  That is the only way they will improve.  Every advance in my skill-set can be tied to people much better than me graciously playing well below their skill-set.

Late that year I injured my left knee.  I tore my meniscus, probably because for years I lead, pivoted, and pushed off all on my left leg (compensating for the damaged hamstring on my right leg).  Surgery was indicated, but I opted against it, and kept playing, usually wearing a brace.  I would have bouts of debilitating pain, and often had a pronounced limp, especially on the days after playing for four hours or so (at least twice a week).

2006  - Lynmar Classic and State Games, 1st Place, Men's "B" Doubles.   The ugly side of me.

In march 2006 a friend asked me to partner with him and enter the Lynmar Classic Tournament.  This is one of the rare times I got so mad playing that I don’t remember playing the actual game.  Our opponents in the final were the annoying sorts, and after a number of irritating incidents I went into my berserker mode (never knew I had one).  We had won the first game.  In the second game they scored the first point, then disputed a shot I made, calling hinder even though it was a good kill.

These matches are officiated, and the judge over-ruled it.  We scored twice, and then there was another “incident”, one I don’t remember . . . and I don’t remember scoring the next thirteen points.  My partner had to walk over and tell me the game was over, and that we had won.  He told me later he did not remember hitting the ball more than once or twice, as I was all over the court.  People congratulated me for what had apparently been a one-man show.  Like I said, I do not remember it.  It sounds like I’m bragging, but all I know is I did not enjoy it.

August 2006 - Colorado State Games - Mens Doubles 1st Place - "B" Division

That August we entered the Colorado State Games, and we again won 1st place in the Mens Doubles “B” division.  By this time I was not enjoying any tournament play, and my knee was increasingly bothering me, limiting the amount of playing I could do . . . but I still played 2-3 times a week, still four hour at a time, still wearing a brace.  My knee got worse.

In 2007 my partner was about to move to Arizona, and he wanted to play one more tournament.  Unfortunately, the very first day of the tournament I woke up with my knee “locked up”.  Worse yet, he was sick with some sort of bug.  With one of us healthy we might have made it a go, but with both of us ailing, it was no contest . . . we were eliminated in two straight games in the first match.  That was the last tournament I played.

In February 2008 I tore my rotator cuff, and in April I had surgery to repair it.  While they were at it, they worked on the knee as well.

The day after knee and shoulder surgery - one of the most unflattering pictures of me.

I don’t photograph well, but this is by far the most unflattering picture of me ever taken.  I was swollen, I had gained weight, and in a lot of pain (don’t let the half-smile fool you).

A few days later they removed the stitches . . . 

Post-OP exam - knee

Post-OP exam - shoulder -1

Post-OP exam - shoulder -2

Post-OP exam - shoulder -3

Post-OP exam - shoulder -3

. . . could not resist having some fun with that last one. . .

August 31, a few days earlier than planned, I started playing again.  The surgeon told me there would be no problems, and my shoulder and knee should be good to go. 

Back in form . . . sort-of

That year Lynmar ran into financial difficulties, and many players left.  The club was bought by Lifetime Fitness, and more players left.   Less players meant less games, and less opportunities for higher-level matches.  Don’t get me wrong; we had a lot of fun.  The bulk of my playing switched to doubles, and now I could irritate twice the number of people (and sometime three times) than I could in singles.

Lynmar/Lifetime closed at the end of March 2011.  Most people joined the Y, but I just stopped playing. The reason: Lifetime opened a new club, but it did not have any racquetball courts, and I don’t like the courts at the Y.

The Lynmar Building was bought by Big House Sports, a volleyball outfit.  They reopened the racquetball courts in August of 2011, and only a small number of players rejoined.  It was difficult to schedule games and have people commit to regular matches.  Still, I continued playing 2-3 times a week until early February 2012 . . . that’s when I felt a pain in my shoulder.

A couple of visits to the doctor, and an MRI later, and a small tear was confirmed in my rotator cuff.  The surgeon was surprised, and I asked if it was due to racquetball.  He was not sure, but could not discount it.

I’ve not played since then, and on May 3rd, next week as I write this, I will have surgery repairing the tear (again).  Pain and rehabilitation until September or so.

But I am not going back to racquetball.  As much as I love it, I will find other ways to keep fit.

I am leaving a sport I love dearly, and I am leaving it at the top of my playing ability.   Perhaps I could still marginally improve, but this was never about being the best.  It was about having fun, about “fast and furious” playing, and being good enough to challenge.

I could “play smart”, not push myself, and make sure I play healthy . . . yeah, not likely.  I know me; I would push myself, and this sport is hard on the body, especially an old body.  Realistically, all I have to look forward to is a slow decline.

No, the decision is made . . . I am hanging up my Lethal weapons, and calling it quits on racquetball.  RB no more.  I have no regrets about the decision, and I don’t feel bad about it.  Some friends will feel bad for me.  Don’t.  I have plenty of other stuff to keep me busy, and 30+ years at anything is a good run.

I carry with me great memories of adversaries and partners, many of which I consider friends; people who shared my love for the best sport there is.   There are too many to list here, but hopefully they will read this and recognize themselves weaved in my narrative.

Because I have not played in tournaments for a number of years, I have no current USRA ranking.   Once the membership expires later this year, there will not be a record of me at the site, so I posted the screenshot of my profile below, as opposed to posting a link I know will go dead.  They kindly have me listed as a “A” player.  They are very generous.

Note:  It used to be WordPress would allow comments without being a member (just include your e-mail).  Supposedly that is still the case, but some people report otherwise.  

Try it; if it works for you, fine.   But, if you are any of the people who crossed my racquetball travels, want to comment, but would rather not sign up to WordPress to do so, shoot me an e-mail, and I will add your comments here for you.  

If you e-mail me your comment, indicate if you want your name included or not.


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. . .  my FP ward  . . . chieken shit.