Jim Hoppel. He was ex-military and just tough as hell. He was the kind of guy you just couldn't seem to get one over on too because he was always a step ahead of you.
I remember one time we were having a little scrum after practice. It had been raining out and, as often happened, a bunch of the guys on the team broke out into various wrestling matches. Why did we do this? Because we were stupid teenageboys. Well this particular rainy afternoon my best friend to this day, (not yet Dr.) Scott Kennedy, decided he would take on Coach Hoppel. Scott was a good sized kid. He had played linebacker and tight end on the football team and he had wrestled for the school as well. But nobody had ever had the guts to mess with Hoppel. It was pretty incredible because before anyone really knew what was going on Scott had both a) done the stupidest thing any of us had ever seen by taking on The Man and b) amazed us all by getting up in Hoppel's chest and driving him back-pedaling and seemingly off-balance toward a large puddle out behind second base. Holy crap! Scott's gonna get him!
Then, in no more than a nanosecond, JimHoppel bent the laws of physics. I swear to you he was literally falling backward into the puddle with a 220 lb athlete grabbing hold of his shirt right up in his chest and driving him downward when all of a sudden Scott is flying and twisting in the air over Hoppel's body and being half thrown and half pile driven like a rag doll square onto his back into the middle of this brown, muddy puddle. It was perhaps the quickest movement I have ever seen and yet I'm positive I watched it in slow motion. There was no real explanation to where the torque came from to wrench Scott over him like that, but WHIP-WHOOSH-SPLAT. Scott is on his back. But Hoppel isn't done. You see his hand pull up Scott's shirt, he closes his fist, rips his hand away from Scott's exposed belly then thrusts his fist into Scott's face, like a freaking flash, and yells “ODD OR EVEN? ODD OR EVEN????” Then hethrows the belly hairs down onto Scott's astonished and defeated face and casually walks away as if nothing has happened. I'm telling you, I'd never seen anything like it before nor since.
That story was actually a bit of a tangent. I just got to remembering it because Jim Hoppel was the reason I was able to play on a couple of all-star teams that traveled on behalf of the Oregon Baseball Academy (OBA) back in those days. Am I about to brag that I was kind of at one time technically (did I mention “kind of”?) an all-star? Noooooooooooo. This story isn't about the fact that on this particular trip I batted .500 including 2 home runs and a third shot off the very top of the fence. It's not about the fact that more than half my hits were for extra bases and that, oh by the way, this was actually the best pitching I probably ever faced in my life. I'm actually pretty sure that a one-day-to-become MVP of the National League played for the team that beat us in the championship game...a guy named Jimmy Rollins.
None of that is what this story is about. This story is about what happens when unprepared people take 4 complete stranger teenage boys into their home without forethought.
You see, at the time these OBA teams would keep these trips inexpensive by a) driving most of the players across multiple states in a 15 passenger van and b) having us crash with host families instead of hotels. So after a very long, cramped drive from Portland to Salt Lake City with a bunch of sweaty, randy, dirt-bag, 17 year old baseball kids we were doled out to a group of awaiting hosts.
Our host family had a decent sized house so instead of bunking with one other guy I was put in a house with 3 of my teammates. One of the guys was a friend and classmate of mine named Jeff Brunold. He was the only other kid from my high school on the team. Jeff was an amazing hitter, but had his senior season cut short because of a self-inflicted broken finger. He had slammed his helmet down (with his finger still in it) after a second baseman had made an amazing diving catch against him. There was also a self-confident, baby-faced kid from a private school in Portland named Ash (it's unbelievable I just found this guy on the internets!) and a tall, goofy redneck from Hermiston named Eric (I actually can't remember his name but Eric will do). We were all picked up by a couple in their early 50s in their minivan. The drive to their house was quiet.
We arrived at their house as it was getting dark outside. When we walked in and started down the hallway it wasn't too difficult to put the pieces together...we were in SLC, there are pictures of about 8 kids on the wall...this is a Mormon family. Well...I wasn't a drinker so this probably wasn't going to affect me a whole helluva lot. STOMP! What the?...STOMP STOMP! Hands flying around. Hands. Awkward silence. What the?... “Boys, this is Lucas. He's our 10 year old. He's deaf so what we do is stomp on the ground to get his attention. He feels the vibrations...it's a way of hearing us.” Whoa! Okay. We're not in Kansas anymore.
So, stomping aside, this household was freaking weird. It just felt strange being there. The dad was a little too old. The mom was a little to submissive. The cute daughter had a picture on the wall, but we never saw her (trust me...we were looking). The reason this family hosted us was because their son who was our age was on the host team scheduled to play against us in the tournament. I have never seen a kid less interested in playing baseball. In fact, he never once spoke to us while were there. Not once. He kind of looked like Napoleon Dynamite and it felt as though his dad had forced him to play ball and he felt like we, as ballplayers, were somehow competing for his dad's affection. Does that sound weird? It was.
The only thing I remember about this kid is that he brought his girlfriend over and watched TV with her a lot. I remember the mom telling us he was “courting her” which was a phrase I didn't know and didn't bother to investigate. I just figured that nerdy boys in SLC 'court' nerdy girls while the rest of us “go out” with them. Whatever.
So that first night it was about 9:00 when we had all our stuff put in the bonus room where we slept. That was when the parents came in and told us it was time to go to bed (and by "bed" I mean the floor and a shoddy sofa) and they would see us in the morning. What?!?!?! I'm 17 years old, I have two baseball games tomorrow, I'm crashing with three other guys, I've been cooped up in a 15 passenger van all day, I'm in a strange town and you're telling me it's 9pm so it's time to go to bed? They disappeared. We hung out for about 10 minutes before deciding we were hungry. All four of us tip-toed our way into the kitchen to investigate. Nothing. What? Nothing. If you've never been a teenage boy maybe you don't know what it's like to be in a constant state of starvation. Where is the food? We went to sleep (a couple hours later) hungry...empty...
The next morning it was cold cereal and off to the field. When we returned in the evening we were expecting dinner, but I don't think they were expecting to feed us. I'm pretty sure they scraped together some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We didn't have much to do since our “host brother” was literally hiding from us (I pictured him cowering under his covers occasionally poking his beady little eyes out to make sure we weren't standing there taunting him with our baseball gear reminding him how inept he was at the game his father loved). We still hadn't seen the cute sister featured on the wall in the hallway. At one point I poked my nose into the garage (hoping for a fridge with something...anything...in it PLEASE FEED ME!) and found it was packed from wall to wall with electric wheelchairs and wheelchair parts. To me it was like a junkyard for all the mutant toys created by the psychopathic neighbor kid in Toy Story.
After dinner (or, as we called it, snack time) we asked if there was a store we could go to (BECAUSE WE WERE STARVING!). They told us we could walk down to the local grocer...it was about a mile away. And so we walked. Well...actually this Suburban full of girls pulled into a driveway about a half mile from the house and we asked them to drive us. They were cute and we were idiots so they quickly dropped us off at the store then high-tailed it out of there. Thanks ladies, I don't blame you.
I remember specifically that Jeff and I bought some food and we started telling the 20-something cute female checker that we were stuck in the host-house-from-hell. They were keeping us alive on a minimal diet and they all stayed locked away in their rooms during the few hours they were awake. She said something like “awwww...I wish I had room to have you crash at my apartment.” Missed opportunities...
So the next day they promised us a feast. And, for the one time, a feast we had. They barbecued hot dogs (pretty sure they were the Bar-S dogs made from chicken, pork and turkey parts [what in the world are gibblets?]). I was able to eat at least two and maybe three dogs along with all the fixings. A couple other host families and teammates were there, so we figured they were just putting on a show to make it appear they were indeed nourishing us. And something amazing happened at the bbq. The girl on the wall came out of her room. She ate with us. I don't remember her speaking. But she was there. She had a sweet face and shiny smooth hair. And when she was finished eating she dissipated...vanished into thin air never to be seen by any of the four of us again. To this day I question her actual existence. It's entirely possible that in my state of prolonged malnourishment and teenage hormones I simply imagined that there was a cute girl in the house. If you ever bump into Brunold or Ash or even (probably not named) Eric, ask him.
Well, all of us had been complaining to the coach about the living situation. I'm sure we embellished, but it really was a crappy host family. We may as well have been staying in a cheap motel. We complained about the lack of food. About the lack of interest anyone in the family took in showing us anything. We rightly complained about the stupid kid who was supposed to be showing us around but instead was “courting” (whatever that meant). To be frank, I was a little worried my body might end up buried in that wheelchair graveyard.
So they gave us a new home! No kidding. We finished our last game on like day 4 and our coach let us know that our bags were at the field and a new family was going to take us in. Like a stray dog through an open door I was giddy, wagging my tail and looking for somewhere to pee. So this lady picks us up in her mini-van. She had two little kids (I really can't say how old...maybe 4 and 6?) so we're packed in there pretty tight. I didn't really think much of it when she a) got lost on the way to her house and b) came to a stop at a green light. I should have. Oh...and I don't recall saying goodbye to or thanking or even seeing the other host family again. It was a clean divorce...we let them keep the kids.
We did eventually get to her house. She introduced us to her husband. She let us know they were the one non-Mormon family in Salt Lake. And then she said the most beautiful thing anyone has ever said to me. She said, “here in this freezer we stocked up so you can feel free to have anything in here any time you want. We just stocked up at Costco.” Is this heaven? “No, it's Utah.”
Next morning we head up for breakfast. 15. I think they had Eggos for us. As many as we wanted. It was awesome. Butter, syrup, mmmmmore please! Wait...15 what? Oh right. 15 as in 15 empty beer cans upside down in the kitchen sink. Wow. Well, maybe that accounts for the stopping at green lights and whatnot. But who cares? They're nice and there's food and their house downstairs is perfect for us and I just used all three forms of the homonym "thare" in one run on sentence! They had a Nintendo downstairs and a TV. The kids liked playing with us. We were allowed to walk around the neighborhood. All the world was right.
One night we put an old shoe on top of a rock wall and threw dirt clods at it until it was knocked off (I made the final blow). One night we went on a walk and found a construction site...climbed into a big backhoe, found the key and tried (unsuccessfully) to fire it up. One night we walked by a sign outside a music shop that read “BEAT THE RUSH, REPAIR YOUR HORN TODAY.” About two seconds later it read “BEAT THE RUSH, REPAIR YOUR HORNY TOAD.” Word play high jinks!
Over the course of a few days the other guys had hit if off pretty well with the dad. At this point he was pretty clearly an alcoholic. Every morning there were X-teen empty beers in the sink...this was a nightly ritual. We were downstairs when the drinking happened so we didn't really know the routine, but the evidence was clear. So the other guys were asking him to buy us beer. We had some money our parents had given us for the trip...we just needed a buyer. He wasn't opposed, but his wife was. So the deal was dead. I really didn't care because I didn't drink. You may or may not believe this, but my first sip of alcohol was when I was married and nearly 22.
So the last night came around and, no shizz, this guy comes through with a half-rack of cheap beer. Eric grabs one. Ash grabs one. Jeff grabs one. Eric goes for number two. Door opens. The mom comes in. The poop hits the fan. She looks at us like we're the devil and yells something. She then marches straight upstairs and we start hearing an argument. It's not good. “How could you?” “Contributing to the delinquency of...” “Supposed to be supervising them!” “What about our kids?” “I'm taking the kids and leaving!” What? Yes. That's what happened. Rustle-rustle-rustle. Plead, plead, plead. Door slam. Car engine. Doppler effect (vroooo-ooo-oooommmmm). No more mom. Dad comes downstairs, points at all of us and says “You little sh*ts! You had to ruin it for all of us, didn't you?” Door slams. Car engine. Doppler effect. We're all alone.
We were all pretty shaken up. I didn't feel guilty because, as I said, I didn't even want the beer. The other guys kept drinking as they contemplated the consequences of what had just happened. We had just broken up a marriage. I did the only thing I could think to do. I went upstairs and microwaved one of those amazing frozen, single-serving, deep-dish pizzas they used to sell by the barrel at Costco and licked the silver cardboard lining clean.
The next morning the dad had come to his senses. He was sober. He was sorry. He apologized to us and told us this had been bubbling under the surface for a long time. He would drop us off at the field with our stuff because it was the last day and we were headed home after the game. We found out at the field from the mom's sister that this was the first time anything like this had ever happened between the two of them. She had never taken the kids and left...ever. To this day I wonder what ever became of them, but I don't really remember anything about them other than that amazing pizza and I don't think they make those things anymore.