The Novel

Ten Years Later, Rock ‘n Fire

I’VE COMPLETED MY first novel, and strange as it is for me to write those words, it’s even stranger to have finished the book. Writing a novel has been a lifelong ambition of mine, and while I’ve had several books published over the last 20 years, this one feels different—it should. It was an ever-changing process, one that felt much longer than it really was. Regardless, I’m happy, nervous, even sad; my characters and story have been set free.

Without dwelling on too many particulars, I thought I’d share a few learning points from my long, novel-writing experience. First, it started out as nothing more than a baseball novel, but it grew into a lot more. And since it took ten years to get to “The End,” the roller coaster I set myself on was sprinkled with reading many How-to books, a lot of personal research, and discovery missions to determine what my story needed to become a novel with a viable and meaningful plot.

Initially, it had very little of the stuff a good book needs; I added a couple of characters, figured out side plots, inserted conflict, and a lot of other things. Then I added another mini story, plus a sweeping arc of time to cover several different parts of character growth. At first I thought maybe I added too much, but I liked what I did and the flow was unique and moving. The best thing is, like all good projects, sometimes more is less—it worked, and I finished the roadmap I needed to complete the story. It was settling in and actually getting down to the writing of the 90,000 words needed to tell the story that was hard, and tricky.

Besides the actual writing, one of the biggest stumbling points I had trouble getting past was coming up with a good title. Nothing I came up with fit my story; as a historical baseball novel I wanted some grit in the words on the book cover. I had several awful titles, things like Lost Time Again or The Lost Lefty. Bad. And as stupid as it was, the lack of a title hampered my creative process. I didn’t like calling it “My Novel.”

And then my wife came to the rescue.

If you’ve ever been to a little league baseball game, at some point you’ll hear a parent or coach holler, “Rock ‘n Fire, Billy, Rock ‘n Fire!” It is a time-honored phrase encouraging pitchers to rear back and fling the ball toward home plate–usually when they’re doing poorly. A grandparent for one of our son’s teammates used the expression constantly, encouraging not only his grandson, but all of the other kids on the team, too.

“That’s the title of your book,” my wife said after game a few years back. “Rock ‘n Fire! It’s perfect.” It was, it is.

I had to make a few adjustments to my main character and incorporate the title into the story, but that was easy enough. And once I had a title—I never considered changing it, it was not just a “working” title—I was able to finally settle into the rigors of actually crafting and writing my story.

Rock ‘n Fire.

I’ll be sharing more about the book, characters, and pieces of Americana I’ve incorporated throughout the story in future posts. If you’re interested, here’s a link to buy the book:

An unforgettable story hides in the shadows of America’s national pastime…

The 1969 Super Chiefs

There have been some very good teams in the history of the Kansas City Chiefs, but only one great team. 

When I originally ran my survey to find some perceptions on which team Chiefs’ fans thought was the greatest ever, I was pretty sure it would easily be the 1969 version, the franchise’s only Super Bowl champion. I was wrong. The ’69 group received just 45% of the vote. The 1971 team received 21% of the votes as the Chiefs greatest team ever, and the 1993 Joe Montana Chiefs received 26%.

How is that possible?

After initially being baffled, it was easy to figure out. Sports fans romanticize losing teams more than winning teams, and usually love a team that didn’t win it all more than the one that did. I’ve heard from fans, former players, and others that felt the ’71 team was better than the 1969 champs. Why? They lost a game they should have won, that’s why. The 1993 team lost the AFC Championship game, but the team had one of the greatest QBs ever—and the fact that they played just 20 years ago as compared to 45 might have something to do with it as well. In addition to the three teams I listed in the survey, a couple of people voted for the 1997 team, another Chiefs’ team that failed to win a playoff game.

I could go into detail about why the 1969 team is the best, but I’ll keep it brief. In no particular order, here’s the main laundry list of why this was a special and great team.

  • The team overcame losing its starting QB for half the season.
  • The defense gave up just 20 points in 3 post-seasons games.
  • They beat the defending world champs in the first round of the playoffs.
  • They beat the Raiders, finally, after losing to them 7 out of 8 times.
  • The won the Super Bowl.

It’s a simple list. Check out my Chiefs Encyclopedia or SUPER CHIEFS books for more stuff, but really, being the franchise’s only champion is why the 1969 Chiefs are the best-ever. As for the other three teams named in the survey, no. I loved the ’71 team, but something was missing from that team, whether it was a drive and hunger to win or just a couple more star players to put it over the top.

I love the "Choir Huddle" used by the Super Chiefs, and I've used several different photos of it in my books. This is a shot from Super Bowl IV.

I’ve always thought the “Choir Huddle” used by the Super Chiefs was cool. This is a shot from Super Bowl IV.

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For the most part, I watched Super Bowl IV by myself. For some unknown reason, my mom made my dad take her and my sisters shopping during the game. Shopping. For whatever reason, Dad followed the marching orders that day. A month earlier he had taken me to the Chiefs’ Buffalo game at Municipal Stadium, a cold wonderful memory, one of the best times I ever had with my dad.

The night before the game, when I heard Jimmy “The Greek” explain why the Vikings would humiliate the Chiefs in SB IV, I was pretty upset. But by the end the game and the Chiefs had easily won, I learned a lesson about experts and their opinions.

My family returned from the shopping expedition in the fourth quarter, so I had to share the glory of the win with them anyway. Over the years I’ve thrown the Super Bowl shopping spree in my mom’s face, always laughing about it, still never getting an explanation of why she decided that that Sunday was a shopping day that had to be done with my dad.

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Here’s one of the sections from my SUPER CHIEFS book, Dawson talking about the bogus gambling allegations that had been levied at him a week earlier, and Stram remembering how the team had been before the Super Bowl I loss.

The Champions

In the crowded locker room following the 23-7 win against the Vikings, shouts and hugs were everywhere—it was a totally euphoric atmosphere. Television and newspaper reporters interviewed anyone and everyone, moving from player to player.

“This is a much greater thrill than anything that has ever happened,” Lamar Hunt said in the middle of the celebration. “This is it.”

Sitting alone was Otis Taylor, and the great receiver could not control the wave of emotions that swept over him. He was crying.

Len Dawson had conquered the unfair gambling allegations, completing 12 of 17 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. It had been a hard year for the future Hall-of-Famer—the knee injury, losing his father, then the ridiculous gambling accusations.

On this day, he was named MVP of Super Bowl IV.

“No, the gambling thing didn’t give me any extra incentive,” Dawson said to the reporters. “How could it? I approached this game as a big game, as an opportunity to be the best. You don’t need outside motivation.

“Winning a game like this is a big thing because if you win you don’t have to explain anything. We’ve been explaining our Green Bay game (losing Super Bowl I) for three years.”

And then there were the questions asking Stram to  compare this team to the one that lost to the Packers.

“I was criticized then,” Stram said of the Super Bowl I loss. “Our defense wasn’t that good then. But I don’t have time to gloat now. I will just hold to my philosophy, and that includes winning with grace and style.

“On that long bus ride from Long Beach to Los Angeles for the first Super Bowl, the team was quiet and preoccupied. They were afraid of the game, of coming into the presence of greatness—the Green Bay Packers. They still respect the Packers, but today they were relaxed and easy and laughing on the way to the stadium.”

KC Chiefs Survey

I have heard many times the last 15 years or so from several different sources that the 1971 Chiefs (who lost the NFL’s longest game to the Miami Dolphins in the 1971 playoffs) were actually better than the Super Bowl champs from 1969. I’ve never thought that myself, but several players told me they thought the 1971 team was better. A few sportscasters who knew both teams somehow deemed the ’71 version to be better.

I plan on writing about the results of the survey, so let me know which team you think is the Chiefs’ greatest ever. Here’s the survey link:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/CVHQRPF

Thanks for your help.

Number Nine

MY OLDEST SON, Walt, turned nine today—which means I’m old. His life so far has been an amazing adventure for me and my wife, Kathleen, and as he inches closer to becoming a teenager (holy mother of god!), I know good things are in store for him. Walt finds joy in almost anything, tells bad jokes, is a good student, and loves sports. He’s learning about life, and for the most part, doing an excellent job at it.

Most importantly, he has a good, big heart—his mom and I are very, very proud of him.

The day of his birth was like a long layover at the airport. Because my wife was close to having preeclampsia, her doctor wanted to induce labor on the due date if the baby didn’t come on his own. He didn’t. So in the early morning of December 20, 2005, my wife and I went to the hospital, were admitted, and within the hour she was induced. So began her day-long journey through the incredible transcendental ups, downs, and pains of natural childbirth—I waited by her side, running for water, ice chips, and towels.

Midway through the afternoon, I turned the room’s TV to ESPN. I had read a little throughout the morning, made a couple of runs for coffee and food, but I sensed Kathleen was getting closer to the delivery. I wanted some mindless, visual fodder for my brain, which was on overload about becoming a dad. A special was running on the disgraced football coach, George O’Leary, who had made the most of his second chance in the coaching world and was just finishing a great first season at the University of Central Florida. It was nice show, and I always think of O’Leary on Walt’s birthday.

A couple of hours later, Kathleen hit the final phase of her labor. A day nurse had been with us off and on throughout the day, but when the magic moment finally arrived, her doctor and a team of medical maternity professionals arrived quickly. It was an awesome, wonderful thing.

Walter Gerard Stallard was born at 5:02 in the afternoon.

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Me and Walt, about an hour and a half after he was born.

The kid has loved a lot of things in nine years. Barney, Mickey Mouse, Peppa the Pig, and SpongeBob. Buzz Lightyear. Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Most recently it’s Pokémon cards and Madden football. I didn’t have an inkling of a clue about parenthood his first night on the planet, and at times I still don’t. But the kid (and his younger brother) has probably taught me more about life than I’ll ever be able to teach him.

Happy birthday, Walty. It just gets better and better.

A Synergy of Blue: Finding Baseball Again in Kansas City

There is an old saying that can be applied to almost any kind of human endeavor. Raise your hand if you haven’t heard this before:

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

If you didn’t know, the quote is from Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher who lived more than 2,300 years ago. This saying is pulled out frequently when talking about underdog teams in sports, teams without a real superstar, but it is almost always used when a team’s winning appears to be nothing more than a fluke. I’m pretty sure that the 2014 KC Royals were not what Aristotle had in mind when he laid out this quote for the ages, but the idea of the Royals, as applied to anything else, might be.

Like an explosion across the ballparks of America, the Kansas City Royals have landed in the World Series, embracing their team synergy like no other I’ve ever seen before.

Synergy—I’ll save you from clicking over to Dictionary.com—comes from the Greek word synergia, and means “when combined elements produce a total effect greater than the sum of the individual contributions.”

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Synergy. I’ve always loved the word, always loved its meaning, which in visual terms, looks something like this: 2 + 2 + 3 + 1 = 16.

It is an intangible concept at best, but one that can be applied to almost anything—food, science, nature, even love and baseball. A lot of corporations grabbed onto the word and spoon-fed it to their employees to enhance teamwork and spirit. And here’s the thing: You can apply the concept of synergy to almost everything except—and feel the irony—math. And if you’re any kind of baseball fan, you know that math—numbers—is what baseball is really about to almost everyone: From RBIs, fantasy games, to a ballplayer’s WAR number, ticket prices, salaries, even the cost of a replica jersey.

It’s the math, baby.

And the 2014 Royals’ math doesn’t add up. But the synergy flowing in out of Kauffman Stadium does.

There's a lot of heart in this Kansas City team.

There’s a lot of heart in this Kansas City team.


I was originally going to add a link to the song “You Gotta Have heart” from the 1958 movie Damn Yankees!—hey, these Royals have heart—but the tune is so dated and slow that listening to it is not fun. And if anything,these Royals are fun. With their non-Red Sox-like beards, cool haircuts, baggy pants, speed motions, and goggles-wearing style, they’ve rekindled my unconditional love of baseball, something I didn’t think was possible.

For most of the past 20 years, the Kansas City Royals were worse than the replaceable-part ballplayers they rolled out onto the field. It never seemed the team should be as bad as it was, and while almost all Royals fans knew in their hearts that the team would suck one way or another, the annual high number of losses always left them wondering how a team could be so damn bad.

A few lowlights from the not-so-royal years: trading away three Cy Young Award winners (although the third trade was a great one), not having an owner for SEVEN years, trading away a trio of all-star outfielders for virtually nothing in return, hiring the worst manager in the history of the game, cutting all ties to Latin America scouting, adding BLACK to the team uniform, signing Juan Gonzalez, hiring a manager who had never worn a major league uniform before, losing 100 or more games four times in a five-year period—it goes on and on and on. Terrible, awful, and sad. The butt of all bad baseball-team jokes, the butt of all losing jokes, just the butt, period.

One player in particular personified these the lifeless, heartless Royals: Jeff King. I don’t like picking on King, but he, more than anyone else, exemplified the rudderless, heartless bunch residing at Kauffman Stadium until about six or seven years ago. Why? He quit.

A good first baseman for the Royals, King came to KC from Pittsburgh in 1996. He averaged 29 home runs and 112 RBIs in his first two seasons with Kansas City, and hit 24 home runs with 93 RBIs in 1998. I liked him a lot. But on May 23, 1999, the $4 million-a-year first baseman quit the game and walked away.

“My head is here, my heart is not,” King said when he left the Royals. “I think it just came to the point that as much as I hoped and wished, my heart was not totally committed.”

No heart.

For these reasons (and there are a lot of other bad Royals things I’ve failed to mention), the last few years I’ve often questioned my Royals fandom, even my love for baseball in general. My team was horrible, and there seemed to be no relief coming.

Then Kansas City won 86 games in 2013. Hope, and a lot of it, was high for the 2014 team. But something was wrong at the beginning of the season. The team wasn’t as good as everyone thought it should be, and it appeared that the manager, Ned Yost, couldn’t manage his way out of a wet bag on most nights. The 2014 Royals were deemed a huge disappointment by myself and almost everyone else in the world of baseball experts and fans by the All-Star Game. The team was 7 games back on July 23, and I wanted the roster blown up, the manager and GM fired, the Royals sold to an owner who wanted to win, and so on.

So, how wrong was I? Pretty darn.

Two months later, the team was in the playoffs. And now the World Series. The 2014 Kansas City Royals are also being called a team of destiny. I don’t know about any of that, but I do know that the team is absolutely a total piece of synergy, and the perfect sports example for Aristotle.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Pythagorean Theorem (math!) of baseball is a pretty good gauge to use in determining what a team’s total number of wins should be—using the formula, the numbers the 2014 Royals put together should have won them just 84 games, not enough to make the playoffs. On the field, the team won 89 games and a playoff spot. They’ve also won over a lot of hearts the last three weeks as America has gotten a good look at their incredible, magical tickers, and synergy in its finest form.

Aristotle would be proud—Let’s Go Royals!

The Ailment of Actually

THE NEXT TIME you actually have a conversation with someone—anyone—actually count how many times they use the word actually. Or if you’re watching a show, listening to a sound bite, even talking on the phone, actually count the number of times you actually hear “actually.”

You’ll actually be surprised.

That word—actually—has become this incredibly overused, lazy crutch of a modifier for almost everyone; from second graders to grandparents, TV news reporters to teachers, corporate CEOs to sales clerks, coaches, college students, parents, engineers, car washers, bank tellers, and—gasp!—even the president. It’s like having actually diarrhea. Which, believe it or not, is actually true.

Okay, word check time. Here’s the definition of the word, courtesy of Merriam-Webster:

actually

Simple enough, and nothing about the main definition of the word lends itself to excessive use. So I checked out the Urban Dictionary, and one of the main definitions says that actually is the “most overused adverb I’ve ever heard. Used by those whose vocabularies lack adverbs.”

For me, nothing about the actually ailment is about a lack of adverbs—I kind of stumbled onto its overuse epidemic by accident. Sadly, this is actually about a family problem. My oldest son became afflicted with the awful ailment, falling far down the actually hole before my wife or I noticed. And we weren’t sure we’d be able to save him. He was speaking confidently, and completely, but he was also talking “actually.”

“Dad! He actually scored a touchdown!

“I actually did my homework last night.

“Well, actually, Pete was actually going to be gone tomorrow, but he’s actually home.”

I think you get it.

When I actually noticed his extreme overuse of the word, I thought breaking the habit would be difficult. I explained to him, many times, how he wasn’t using the word properly, and that it was not needed to communicate his thoughts.

“Pretend it’s a bad word,” I told him, “a word you’re not allowed to say.” He nodded, fought me a little, but then agreed to try and stop. My son agreeing with me is a rare thing of beauty that I always appreciate, and we started to pretend it was a bad word. And then we pretended some more.

“Hey,” I was saying to him several times a day, “you actually just said it.”

“You just said it, too, Dad,” and he would actually laugh hysterically.

After about a week, he surprised me and started to catch himself saying it. Within three weeks, he had almost completely dropped the word from his usual sentence-speaking habits.

Hooray! I was very happy—the kid had self-actualized himself.

But. And there’s always a but, isn’t there? As I was congratulating my oldest son for beating the actually ailment, I quickly discovered just how contagious and toxic “actually” can be—my youngest son was now saying stuff like “Actually, I’m pretty good at that game” and “I actually don’t need to look at my spelling words.” The wife also started throwing the word into her sentences as casually as she did when using “a” or “the”.

And sadly, I am actually using it a lot now, too.

* * * * *

Remember School House Rock? “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here”? Take a look again at this little gem of education brilliance—not one mention of “actually.”

This is where I could jump up on a soapy box and talk for hours (minutes?) about how stupid overusing actually—or any word—sounds, let alone how bad overusing a word looks in print (see some of the above paragraphs). I’m not a grammar snob, and I won’t pretend to be one now. I’m not worried about adverbs and never will be. Instead, I’m going to start working on a self cure for this verbal affliction—everyone else is actually on their own.