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Know The Rules

In a glittering 17-year major league career, Larry Walker does it all. Seven Gold Gloves for defensive excellence, five All-Star appearances, three-time National League batting champ, and, in 1997, National League MVP.

In 2020 he receives his just reward, a coveted place in Cooperstown, site of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The pride of Maple Ridge, BC becomes just the second Canadian to be so honoured.

Walker’s heartfelt and gracious acceptance speech focuses on hard work, gratitude and humility.

It also contains a dose of self-deprecating humour.

He recounts a story as a young professional in Utica, New York. He is a member of the beloved Blue Sox. In an early season game, from first base, he takes off in a hit and run situation. Head down, he tears towards second, rounds the bag, only to see his third base coach waving frantically for him to stop.

Aghast, Walker quickly realizes that the line drive to right field has been caught. He is in danger of being doubled up.

As a result, without hesitation, he sprints in a direct line diagonally back across the infield, just behind the pitcher’s mound. Arrives back at first base in time, clearly ahead of the throw from the outfield.

And is called out. He fumes, berates the umpire. Yet, the call correctly stands. Walker fails to properly retrace his steps to second base, does not realize the need to stay on the basepaths. Lesson learned.

Walker is far from alone. Indeed, over the years, multiple athletes have made glaring mistakes in competitive situations because they did not know well enough the rules of their game. Certainly, the list is a long one.

And I am on it.

October 1985. A new representative competition, called the Interbranch and backed by brewery giant Labatt's, will crown a Canadian senior men’s rugby champion. Regional teams from across the country compete, the final eventually contested between the Vancouver Island Crimson Tide and Toronto.

It is a different era. A majority of the top players in the country play on the west coast. The club competition is fierce. Certain pundits reckon that gaining a place on the Tide team is more difficult than making the full provincial side, and that being selected for BC is harder than representing Canada.

The Interbranch final plays out at MacDonald Park in Victoria, in front of a boisterous crowd. I start at fullback for the Tide, an unexpected opportunity to perform well for our fans and in front of the national selection panel.

The weather gods are not kind, with rain lashing down throughout, the ground greasy and the ball slippery. Still, quietly I exult, as the conditions suit me well. Inevitably, this will be a game based on limiting mistakes and controlling territory. Handling and kicking, communication and positional awareness will be vital, all strengths of mine. Dynamic line breaks, attacking flair, speed on the counterattack, endless tackling, not exactly my forte, will, in all likelihood, rarely be required.

And so it proves. The Tide edges a titanic forward battle to score a solitary try. Two penalty goals take the score to 10-0, with only a few minutes remaining. We are nearly home.

Even better, I am playing a blinder. Immaculate reading of the game, catching everything, returning kicks with interest. Barking out defensive instructions, watching the red line of jerseys immediately in front of me smother every opposition sortie.

Then, it happens. Inside our quarter, the Toronto fly half carries the ball towards the try line. Seeing his way blocked, he floats a chip kick over the onrushing defenders. Chases hard, in the hope he might regather and score.

However, covering neatly, I am well placed to snuff out any danger. Even though the ball will travel “in goal”, or into the end zone, I have time. Time to catch the ball and touch it down, or time to secure the ball and claim a “mark”, a gridiron style fair catch. Either will allow for an unpressured clearance from the ensuing phase of play.

It is only then that my mind starts playing tricks. Seeds of doubt spread through my brain as I analyze whether the fair catch, my best option, is actually legal in the end zone area.

I decide it is. Then isn’t. Analyze again, hesitate, reanalyze. Shifting decisions and growing uncertainty in, literally, the blink of an eye.

Again, the debate - is a fair catch allowed in the end zone? I think so but am not absolutely sure. Try to convince myself. But if so, from where does the ensuing clearance kick take place? – from in goal, from the goal line, or somewhere in the field of play.

The end result is an absolute disaster. In a hurry, I decide to just catch the ball, hold on to it firmly, go to ground. However, now under pressure, fatally I twist away too soon. As I turn, the ball hits me on the shoulder and drops invitingly. The pursuing Toronto player is surprised, but not so surprised he forgets to fall on it, for the easiest tally he will ever score.

My teammates trudge back behind the try line. A few offer consolation, most of the others a stony silence. The easy conversion is successful. 10-6.

Fortunately, we ride out the last few minutes to secure the victory.

The post-game festivities are soon in full swing. With Labatt’s the sponsor, beer is definitely not in short supply. We drink from beautifully engraved silver steins, a prize for winning the inaugural title. Yet, though I do take satisfaction from the team's win, for me, the tankard is something of a poisoned chalice. The bitter ale matches my sour mood.

I try to smile, but am not really up for a party. Am more a toxic mix of disappointment and disgust, frustration and fury. Trophy presentation complete, I head for my car in the parking lot. I rage. One stupid, totally avoidable mistake ruining an otherwise perfect afternoon. Even worse, I know any chance of being selected for the Canada squad soon to play USA is definitely gone.

I have no one to blame but myself.

I didn’t know the rules.


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