Behind the Lines: I’ll take that bet

It was the best World Series I ever watched, not in person, but as close as you could get without being at Fenway Park or Riverfront Stadium. I was 18, away from home for the first time, and in the midst of a few dozen knuckle-dragging fellow miscreants, many of which would become lifelong friends.

Our friend Jon, from Knoxville, Illinois had the biggest TV on our wing, a 25” Curtis Mathes monster of a set.

His room didn’t get great reception but the corner room down the hall on the west side of Crane Hall picked up Denver stations just fine. We moved his TV into that room and packed about 25 of us into the 16×20 door room. Guys on the top bunk, the bottom bunk, in a few chairs, and on the floor cheered, cursed, made side bets, and thoroughly relished what is often considered the greatest World Series of all time between the Reds and the Red Sox.

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I was a fan of Cesar Geronimo, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, and Pete Rose, but I was amazed by the play of Jim Rice and Fred Lynn, and who couldn’t be a fan of Carl Yastrzemski?

I found it interesting that during the last MLB players’ strike ESPN began rebroadcasting the 1975 World Series and had higher ratings than their regular season games the year before. Why not? A seven-game series that featured an easy win by both teams, but five games decided by one run and two of those going into extra innings is hard to beat.

Later that same year, we repeated the event in the same room with mostly the same rogues’ gallery, (aside from a handful who had already flunked out) in watching the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Dallas Cowboys 21-17 in Superbowl 10. Somebody had a bet on nearly every play, wagering on whether Jack Lambert would make the tackle or if Roger Staubach would complete a pass among hundreds of other bets. Though I was a Dallas fan, it was awesome.

My friend Casey Lohman of Pittsburgh had driven back five cases of Stroh’s and Iron City beer from the Steel City after Christmas break. Casey was shrewd, always filling his car with Coors for the trip home where it wasn’t available and making a mint. The Pennsylvania brew, combined with wild game jerky and smoked trout that magically appeared just before kickoff were memorable as well.

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But adulthood loomed on the horizon and viewing sports on TV became more of a solitary pursuit, or perhaps with my dad, son, or in the event of a Pay Per View boxing match, a few friends who chipped in to buy the broadcast.

ESPN made things easier when the once great sports network appeared in 1979. We didn’t get it in Laramie, but it arrived in the fall of 1980 in Lusk, where I had my first teaching and coaching job.

The Lusk Cable Company had only a dozen or so channels. They added ESPN during the high school football season sometime in October.

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It was expensive for a first-year teacher taking home just $788 a month after taxes so I didn’t buy it right away. My friend and fellow coach Mike Hart was better established and had it at his house.

One Thursday in February of 1981 Mike invited all of us over to his place to watch a very good Wyoming team play Brigham Young.

I was just a year removed from the University of Wyoming and had a couple of friends and some acquaintances on head coach Jim Brandenburg’s squad.

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Chris Engler was sitting out a year after transferring from the University of Minnesota when I met him. My roommate Frank knew the 6-11 post from Stillwater, Minnesota from high school when they played each other in the Minnesota state high school tournament. We had a basement apartment with an upstairs room converted from a garage. The garage room only had a 6-8 ceiling, but the owner put a skylight in the middle of the room. At parties, Chris would stand inside the skylight, so he didn’t have to lean down.

I can clearly remember him saying “Beer me,” as he put out his oversized hand waiting for someone to put a can of suds in it.

Charles “Tub” Bradley was the star of the team. Tub and I had a lot of classes together and sometimes shared a study table at Coe Library. He later played for the Boston Celtics.

Mark Wrapp was a 6-8 freshman post who sat next to me in an accounting class. Wrapp had trouble waking up that early and wasn’t that interested in accounting. I helped him through the class as much as I could.

I knew coach Brandenburg well, so well that he allowed me to attend closed practice sessions.

I knew the Cowboys better than anyone else in the house that night as we gathered to watch them play the dreaded Cougars from Provo.

A couple of the guys, including Mike, were smokers and left the game periodically to go outside and indulge their addiction.

We started to bet on plays and possession in the game. This time it was five, ten, or twenty dollar wagers, big money for me on my starvation level salary.

The game was tight from the opening tip. Early in the second half, Mike came back inside and said I’ll bet five bucks that Engler makes a hook shot from the top of the key.

I’d played pickup games with Chris. I knew he couldn’t hit that shot and jumped on the bet. Sure enough, about a minute later, Engler hit a hook from outside the free throw line. I was out five bucks, and suspicious.

The next time Mike went outside I waited a few seconds then followed him through a side door. He had the game on the radio in his truck. There was about a 90-second delay between the radio broadcast and the ESPN program. He had made bets throughout the night, winning all of them since he already knew what was about to happen.

He didn’t see me while I listened as Tub Bradley dunked the ball on a fast break.

“I’ll bet five bucks Tub is going to dunk one on the break,” I said to a startled Mike.

“Listen, I’ll give you your five bucks back,” Mike said. “Just don’t tell the other guys.”

I didn’t tell anyone, recovered my bet, and watched as Mike continued to fleece the other coaches for the rest of the game.

It’s sad what has become of ESPN. Rather than the crisp, entertaining dialogue of Chris Berman, Hannah Storm, and Roy Firestone from the early days the network has bought into the cult of personality and spends far too much time on what some other talking head said, what some clown is wearing off the court or on “woke” issues that don’t belong in sports.

But there was a time when the network shined.

Maybe it was the company rather than the broadcast that made those games from long ago so special, but it would be a lot more enjoyable if they limited coverage of trends and politics and just concentrated on the raw joy of athletics.

That’s a sure bet that will never pay off.

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