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Big thumbs, big score

7/9/2000

When I cut my side deal with the .com bosses, I think I may have vowed
to produce "original" material with each writing. At risk of violating
the terms of the agreement, the following is original in the sense that
I wrote it. It is, however, rather similar to something I put together
last year for ESPN the Magazine. So my new vow is to give this week's
bonus to the Ronald McDonald House of Portland, Maine. That'll be net -- not gross -- as I am providing some kind of service here for those who
haven't read ESPN the Magazine, and those who look only at the pictures.

My pal Stuart Scott often twists the old joke about men with big
hands. "You know what they say about them," he tells the audience,
"they have big...gloves."

One view would be to describe me as "ham-handed", but that's
too critical, it was my thumb. My right thumb is the body part
that had a race track handing out $3,400.

It was the summer of 1981. George Laney, Nick Metcalf, Chuck Mingori
and I were playing some pickup basketball at a park south of Seattle.
One of us noticed there was no exacta wagering being offered.

So we piled into somebody's car and headed for Longacres. For the final
race on the card, it was nominated and approved that we pool our
resources for the $5 exacta -- 30 bucks a head, for a whole bunch of silly
combinations.

Post time approached, we'd narrowed our selections to our consensus
picks. It was time to collect the 30 bones and go to the window.

But like a horse who needs the entire gate crew to be budged into
his starting spot, Mingori wouldn't fork over the dough. These were
college years -- tough years. $30 could be used for something far
less speculative than an $8,000 claiming race. Thirty dollars could be
used for beer.

So even with all our prodding, Mingori took a walk. Three of us remained
and we no longer had the funds to bet the box we'd intended.
The horses we're nearing the gate and at this point Laney, Metcalf
and I were satisfied just to have something on the race, nevermind
the consensus process we'd been through. It reminds me of a story
my uncle used to tell about a guy who entered a track just as some
horses were being loaded for a race he knew nothing about. But as
players seeking action are wont to do, the guy my uncle described
(it may have been a self-description) ran to the window and announced
that he'd like to have "20 to win on number 9." Told that there was
no number 9, the foolish player said, "give me 20 on anybody."

It was nothing so random with us. We still had something of a consensus
from the picks the three of us had made. I was trying to do the math
while running to the window and thought I'd re-set our field for the
exacta at about the moment the track announcer said "one more to load."

I looked to the program in my right hand and called out the numbers
I'd scribbled down. And I read different numbers than those I'd
scribbled. I did this because I could not see those numbers through
my right thumb which was covering them up.

Racing. To see the event. Laney and Metcalf took off one way,
I went another. Mingori, I suppose, was doing his monthly budget
in the Gazebo.

When they came for home our animals were sitting one-two-three.

I glanced at the tickets to be sure.

By the time the runners had reached the 1/8th pole, Laney, Metcalf
and I stumbled upon each other by chance. And they indicated we had no
chance.

But I knew better. Even though the picks didn't seem right, I was sure
of what I'd said at the window. What I'd said was that I'd like
the numbers Mingori had originally chosen. My thumb was covering up
the consensus picks from the new coalition, absent Mingori.

It is rare that one looks forward to the words "government forms."

The aftermath of a horse race being the only exception I can think of.

And so I filled them out. It would be my major source of income that
year. $3,400 and change. The man at the window got a small cut.
Laney and Metcalf and I got our shares. We held out $100 for Mingori,
in the hardest economic decision anyone of us had ever faced.
It was much like how championship professional teams throw a bone to players who were on the club for only a part of a title-winning season.

But do those pros fill a temporary player's car with gas as we did
for Mingori?

Probably not. And most of those pro players have really big hands.

We stayed up most of the night playing poker, trading around some of the
oddly-gotten gains of the day. And then one of us mentioned there
was no golf course at the poker table.

We arrived at the course even before the staff. On the back nine,
exhausted from our all-nighter and feeling we were more or less
capable of burning money, we did. We rented golf carts. A cart for
each player. All the better for racing.

I'm not certain how, but on number 11, a garbage can got stuck sideways
on the wheel of one of the electric carts. Just then the course
marshal arrived. Unless we wanted to abandon our cart -- which would have
drawn a certain amount of attention -- we stood in great jeopardy
of being accused of slow play at this point. But the marshal approached on the opposite side of the cart
with the garbage can attached. He didn't have a clue, wished us well and drove on.
Our racing luck was legendary at this point.

And the garbage can? I was all thumbs.