(The events surrounding this match took place the week of April 10, 2015)
Dealing with the devil may seem like a good idea at the time, but it never ends well. Ask Goethe’s Faust, or Damn Yankees’ Joe Hardy, or steroid-powered Sammy Sosa. Or just ask me, after an ugly, nasty week that showed both the selfishness of our own team members and the pettiness of North Shore League politics in a most unflattering light. I wish the season had ended a week ago with our win over Winchester, but real life is rarely so tidy. So here’s the rest of the story, but first a word of warning: better keep an air-sickness bag close at hand in case it makes you want to throw up.
Our problems began almost immediately after the Winchester match. A number of our guys went to a pub in Billerica called John Ryan’s, but the celebration didn’t last long once we began to think about our lineup for the following week’s championship match at Newburyport. We had beaten Newburyport twice during the regular season, both times by three courts to two in hard-fought matches, so the prospect of playing them at their place in the finals didn’t faze us. If we had been able to use the same lineup as against Winchester, in fact, we would have been clear favorites, our number-four ranking notwithstanding. Unfortunately, though, we didn’t have that option. Alan would be traveling for work and Ronnie had inexplicably scheduled a tropical vacation. To be fair, the playoffs had been moved up about a month since we had last appeared in them all too long ago. I myself was taken by surprise when I learned about those changes a few weeks before the end of the regular season, but of course I hadn’t scheduled a vacation for that time period either. So not only were we down a court 2 player and a court 3 player, we would be missing the two guys I was most comfortable playing with. We hoped Brandon, who was still battling some nagging injuries, would be fit to play, but that still left us with Frank on court five, which at this stage was more or less equivalent to defaulting the court. The more we kicked it around, however, the more it became obvious that there was another alternative. We could hold our noses and ask Bryan to come back (and Bob, too, since no one else would agree to play with Bryan). It was a tough call: should we give up a court in our most important match of the year by sticking with a loyal but clearly incompetent team member, or go for the win with a self-centered, egotistical jerk who happened to be a far better player? In the end, though, we decided to sell our souls. Somewhere Joe Hardy was probably laughing at our naivete.
Famous last words, perhaps, but the plan seemed like a sound one. Newburyport was known for putting its best team, Jim Sartori and Sunny Ahn, on court 2 in the most important matches. So we would throw Bob and Bryan on court 2, hope for the best there, and in so doing drop our other teams down to pick up likely wins on 3, 4 and 5 (we had more or less put court 1 in our column already, given Newburyport’s history). Stacking can be tough for team chemistry if the people being sacrificed resent being placed in that position. But in Bryan’s mind, he should have been playing on court 2 all year anyway, so he didn’t even perceive it as a stack. Bob knew better, but he was willing to go along with it, and let’s face it: underdogs or no, they had a far better chance on 2 than Frank would have had on 5 (the fact that Frank, who was nominally our captain, had absolutely nothing to do with this entire discussion- wasn’t even present, in fact- probably tells you all you need to know about our team). I would play three with Branco, Mark and Justin would play four, and Dennis and either Brandon- if he was healthy- or Gary would play five.
I think it would have worked, but then the North Shore League, run by Newburyport’s own Courtney Gilman, decided to step in. The NSL makes FIFA look squeaky- clean: corruption and conflicts of interest abound, and when controversial decisions are made, the Willows, a small club without much pull, gets the shaft more often than not. Prior to their semifinal match, Newburyport had protested Westford’s lineup, which seemed to be reasonably fair but which had Marc Carey, a 5.0, on court 2 with a 4.0 partner, and two 4.5s on court 1. Marc Carey is the only court 2 player in the league better than Jim Sartori, and Newburyport wins, in part, by loading up on 2 with Sartori. So Newburyport protested, successfully, and Carey was forced to move up to court 1, which Newburyport had already essentially conceded. This left Sartori safe on court 2, where he won comfortably against two 4.5s; he’s that good. This was all “ok” in the league’s eyes, because his team had played him there a number of times during the regular season (that Carey had also played many matches on court 2 didn’t seem to matter, but then again Westford didn’t have the league coordinator in its stable of teaching pros). So courts one and two were split, Newburyport used its depth to win on the lower courts, and that was that for Westford: a great season, surely, but not quite great enough, and one that had ended with a bitter taste.
Having used the protest to good effect the week before, Newburyport tried it again against us and was equally successful. To begin with, the league refused to accept our initial lineup on the grounds that, according to some arcane formula, Branco was too good to play on court 3 and Brandon was too good to play on court 5. It didn’t matter that Branco had played one match in six months and that Jim Sartori could probably wipe the court with him (and surely with me) with one hand behind his back. It didn’t matter that Brandon had a sore arm and that even when his arm was healthy, his net game resembled a man trying without much success to ward off an attacking vampire. The North Shore League’s computer had spoken.
Our guys were angry, and rightfully so. You’ll see three or four lineups in any given week of league play that are more severely stacked than ours was. Nobody says anything when Chris and Elias double bagel (6-0, 6-0) two guys that can barely hold the racquet while our court two team is getting thumped. But when you have a club with money, power and influence in a championship scenario, things change in a hurry. To Frank’s credit, he did his best to keep us together. He had us vote on whether or not to continue playing, after having agreed as a group to abide by the result. Chris and Justin voted against playing and the rest of us voted in favor. So Frank put out another lineup, this time with Branco and me on 2, Bob and Bryan on 3, and Brandon and Justin trading places on 4 and 5. Newburyport again protested, but this time the league ruled in our favor, so it looked like all systems were finally go. But then Newburyport appealed that decision (appealing didn’t seem to be an option when decisions went against us, but now, suddenly, it was in play) and the league reversed the earlier ruling just hours after making it. We would have to rework our lineup yet again.
This time all hell broke loose. Dennis, who’s a pretty outspoken guy, quit the team (or, more accurately, the league) on the spot. The rest of us were split about whether or not to play and spent most of the rest of the week debating the question. Some said that playing would lend legitimacy to a process that was rigged against us, while others, including me, thought we still had a chance, however small, and we needed to show up and do our best to beat the odds. Ultimately the threat of sanctions against other Willows teams in the event we blew off the match may have decided the issue. We would play, and not just without Dennis but also without Brandon, who was hospitalized with a respiratory illness the day before the match. Frank would get to play after all; he’d be teamed with Gary on court 5.
The Christians might have had better odds against the lions than we had in that final match. There was a definite feeling of lambs (not-so-innocent ones, admittedly) being led to the slaughter when we walked into the packed upper lobby of the Newburyport Racquet Club. Seemingly half the population of Newburyport, and unfortunately not the prettier half, was on hand to watch their team’s moment of triumph. They yelled and screamed and pounded on the glass throughout, a display that we countered with one measly fan: Frank’s young daughter, who, as always, spent the time engrossed in her hand-held video game. And why shouldn’t the Newburyport fans have been confident? Their team had not only chosen its own lineup, but ours too. Of course the matchups were in their favor, and in the end everything played out just like they wanted it to. On court 1 Chris and Elias put the smackdown on Foster and Darke, two guys at my level, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Bob and Bryan, who had moved down to 4, played well and took care of a so-so Newburyport 4 team. Everybody else lost. Frank and Gary were off the court in about half an hour, and that includes the warmup. Their opponents should have gotten their money back. Kevin and I lost 3 and 1. We broke Sartori twice but didn’t do anything else well. If we had played our best, we would have had only a slim chance, and we were far from at our best. Jim killed us with poaches not only off Sunny’s serves but off his returns, and made almost no errors the rest of the time. Coming onto the court, Elias challenged him about not playing court 1, and he made some lame excuse that his back had been hurting. Would that my back ever hurt like that! With the score tied, it was up to Garvin and Justin on 3 against Rob Random, a big-hitting young lefty, and Eric Russell, a savvy veteran. In the end, they had a little bit too much for our guys, winning by a break in each set. We quickly slunk away into the springtime sunshine as the whole Newburyport membership celebrated the championship they had worked so hard behind the scenes to “earn”.
It had been a great season, but not quite great enough, and it had ended with a bitter taste.