Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mine's Bigger

MAD artist and Groo the Wanderer creator Sergio Aragonés 

It was apparent by the way he was struggling to rise and steady himself with a cane that he was in a great deal of discomfort. But as I rushed to his side to help with a concerned “Are you okay; what happened?” escaping my throat, he was quick to explain.

“Nothing serious. I had an operation on my back…” And then he gave me a mischievous grin and a sideways glance, his eyes atwinkle. “I was playing Spider-Man and swung into a building!”

That’s when I knew the world-famous cartoonist of Mad magazine fame was going to be all right. I was attending this year’s San Diego Comic-Con International in my occasional role as exhibitor for Fanfare/Ponent Mon, UK-based publisher of translated graphic novels. It was Wednesday, Preview Night, and I—having little interest spending the first night of the greatest show on earth (with apologies to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily) in line to drop a fortune on an exclusive Jar-Jar Binks cookie jar, Willie Lumpkin action figure (his ears wiggle!) or Steuben glass vial of Stephenie Meyer’s drool—forded the crowds to the Small Press area where Aragonés has set up shop for decades.

To my delighted surprise, the playful Spaniard was signing an “Artist’s Edition” of Groo the Wanderer. Introduced by publisher IDW in 2010, these tomes, measuring an impressive 12 x 17 inches, feature the art form’s most distinguished comics at their rawest, each page scanned directly from the penciled and inked pages and including all corrections, blue-pencil lines, paste-overs and such. They’re like having a complete book of original comic art. The inaugural volume, “Dave Steven’s The Rocketeer,” celebrated the late artist’s signature creation and won an Eisner Award. Later editions spotlighted John Romita’s Spider-Man, Walt Simonson’s Thor and Wally Wood’s EC work.

I was unaware of IDW’s new crop, but pleased to see the comic-book equivalent of a Blue Ray Director’s Cut was going strong and downright giddy to see my ole buddy Aragonés so honored. He is probably the most known unknown cartoonist on the planet, whose risible renderings have delighted generations. Anyone who’s ever picked up an issue of MAD magazine has seen the mustachioed maestro’s work.

My introduction to MAD came in the early 70s by way of a young man who worked for my father at his ice-cream stand. Not knowing what to do with the towering—to a wee lad of ten it was staggering—stack of the satirical serials messing up his room, he gave them to me (OMG!!!). As I vociferously pored over the volumes, I couldn’t help but be chagrined by their state. Even then, a ding on the corner of a book kept me up at nights. You’ll be happy to know I’ve learned to control my idiosyncratic penchant for publishing perfection and have been able to live a full, happy life despite the occasional smudge on a page or tear on a cover (eye begins to twitch uncontrollably).

Anyway, what I mistakenly tried to brush away as dirt in the gutters of the pages turned out to be wee witticisms; cartoons created by Aragonés. And they were hysterical, not simply endearing because they were minuscule, the way some things are, like Chihuahuas. I mean, seriously people, they look like the sodomitic result of Marty Feldman and a rat. And please don’t be sending “Chihuahua Council” after me. I love the dainty doggies; they’re cute (ahem).

Since 1963, Aragonés’s “marginals”—those teeny, tiny ticklers, abounding the edges and betwixt the borders of the parody-packed periodical—have graced every issue except one, due to the misplacing of that month’s submission by the postal service. The enjoyment of reading them is only matched by fun in searching for them; it’s like a treasure hunt. And if the dozen or so Lilliputian laughers per volume weren’t enough, the artist’s monthly segment, “A Mad Look at…,” which skewered the pop-culture trends of the day in single panel and sequential strips, always delighted.

From Sergio’s “A Mad look at Spider-Man”

Not long after my initiation into MAD’s fraternal order of frivolity, I discovered the first issue of PLOP! at a pharmacy, back when the establishments featured a soda fountain where one could purchase such delectable offerings as Lime Rickeys and root beer floats with real seltzer, not that bottled crap. I hadn’t yet been bitten by the superhero bug. My comic purchases to that point were of the funny animal, Harvey Comics—Hot Stuff, Spooky, Richie Rich—variety. My mania for MAD showed I had a penchant for parody, which extended to Alfred E. Newman’s bastard children Cracked, Sick and Crazy. So the explosion of my brain upon perusing PLOP! should not have been a surprise.

PLOP! was a DC Comic of “weird humor,” as stated in its marquis, but it was like nothing I had seen before. For one thing, the cover featured a single image, a grotesque mockery of humanity designed by the singular artist, Basil Wolverton. The aberration’s name, with short description, accompanied each. The debut spotlighted “‘Arms’ Armstrong” and read as follows: “‘Arms’ Armstrong has divulged to a PLOP reporter that he was forty years old before he realized that his arms were outgrowing his legs. ‘I’m proud to say that I have never had either broken pins or arch trouble,’ he added.”

Surrounding the cover grotesquerie was an ivory border of pure Aragonés mayhem, a “Where’s Waldo” of the Spaniard’s signature silliness. The artist’s work also served for the framing sequence of the cartoons and comics therein, a buffet of the bizarre, off-beat and chilling, by a variegated assemblage of the genre’s best. The final story of the inaugural issue, “The Gourmet,” written by Steve Skeates and drawn by Bernie Wrightson—wherein an obese, slobbering gourmand of the Mr. Creosote type gets comeuppance for his fondness for frogs’ legs—still gives me the creeps.

By the time PLOP! was canceled in 1976 after 24 issues, I was a true Aragonés adherent. So in 1981, when I espied his work in the back of Destroyer Duck #1 after a five-year fallow period of his genius in funny books, I was agog. Published by the late-but-still-sorely-missed Eclipse Comics, Destroyer Duck was a parody of Marvel’s Howard the Duck. It, too, was created by the late Steve Gerber as a means to help defray the litigation costs of suing the comics giant for ownership of the latter fowl. The four-page back-up feature by Aragonés introduced Groo the Wanderer, and I’ve been a fan of the character ever since.

Groo was Conan the Barbarian by way of Jerry Lewis, a stout-hearted misanthope, whose enthusiasm for joining a fray is only matched by his ineptitude and stupidity. The loveable brute is a walking disaster waiting to happen. At least, that is to what he quickly evolved—or perhaps devolved is more apropos. Initially, Groo was no less a heroic barbarian than his inspiration. It was the outcome of his attempts that proved his undoing. The aforementioned inaugural 4-page foray, for example, has Groo valiantly confront a monstrous giant in order to save a damsel. He succeeds in gutting the beast only to watch in horror as the dying behemoth crushes the fair maiden upon its collapse.

Aragonés created his bumbling barbarian in the 70s, but there were no avenues to publish the character and still retain the rights at the time, so Groo languished in the artist's files until the 80s and the advent of such creator-friendly comic book publishers as Pacific and First

The wayward Wanderer’s misfortunes seemed to haunt the title’s publishing schedule, as well. In 1982, Pacific Comics launched Groo as series, but after a mere eight issues, the company shuttered its doors. A one-shot special, collecting the completed work that had yet to see the light of day, was released by Eclipse in 1984. Luckily, Aragonés found a home for Groo a year later, signing a deal with Marvel’s Epic imprint, where the bumbling barbarian found his stride, cementing his anemic cerebral activity and obsession with cheese dip. The title ran for an impressive 120 issues before moving to Image Comics in 1994. Dark Horse picked up the baton in 1998 and has published Groo’s exploits on and off ever since.

I’d first met Aragonés in Edmonton, Canada, at the third comic book convention staged by husband-and-wife team, Darwin and Lola (see “Survival of the Fittest,” Parts I and II). Their previous two funny-book festivals, which respectively featured notable Spidey artist of yore and Spawn progenitor, Todd McFarlane, and equally renowned former X-Men artist and WildCATS creator, Jim Lee; and Marvel Universe über-architect Stan Lee and legendary Hulk and Not Brand Ecch! artist Marie Severin; were resounding successes, and this sequel promised to top even those stupifying shows with a slate that included pioneering S.H.I.E.L.D. delineator Jim Steranko and Aragonés, among others.
Your nattering narrator speaking with Marie Severin as I perch between Stan Lee and artist Paul Ryan

As my Faithful Bloglodytes may recall from my “Football Hero” post of the Paleolithic Era, my first published work as a writer appeared in 1990 in Marvel Age #96, a one-page article, which would serve as a predecessor for Heroes In My Closet. In it, I reminisce about my exploits as Spider-Man, including my 1988 appearance at the first Darwin and Lola extravaganza, where I met the aforementioned Todd McFarlane. In fact, the photo of Yours Truly and Monsieur McFarlane accompanying the piece was taken at that show. Aragonés provided the cover for the ’zine, which also featured a Groo article. So it seemed fitting that my initial encounter with the world-famous cartoonist occur at the crazy couple’s con two years later.

Long overdue big thanks to Faithful Bloglodyte Steven Gettis who sent me this pick of my signing at the Edmonton Convention (circa 1989) more than a year ago. 

In what had become a tradition at the Luxford’s funny-book fests—basically because there wasn’t anything else to do—the opening night of the show was devoted to a field trip to the Edmonton Mall, a massive Mecca of merchandise and merry-making. On my first jaunt to the Canadian Canaan of capitalism, I braved the facility’s indoor loop-de-loop rollercoaster, marveled at the water park, which included a man-made beach and wave machine, and scratched my head at the submarine ride that traverse the canal running through the concourse. Aragonés had heard of the mall and was most excited to see the “authentic Spanish Galleon” heralded in its marketing literature; not surprising for the native of Castellón, Spain.

 Please tell me that’s YOUR hand Lola!

I tagged along like Marley, nipping at the heels of one who’d brought immense joy to my life with his work. With the dark features and swarthy complexion traditional to his home-country, the hirsute Hispanic appeared as if he’d just stepped off the set of an Errol Flynn swashbuckling epic. Although I was taller by two inches, Aragonés’s six-foot frame and exuberant spirit overshadowed all, with a charismatic personality, warmth, and playfulness, which was far more huggable than imposing. I don’t believe I’ve met anyone who was more endearing.

I had no recollection of this nod to the Spanish Armada, but given the mall’s mind-boggling acreage and numerous wonders, an aircraft carrier could be easily overlooked. Aragonés had done his homework, which was impressive in an age a decade before the Internet, when the research tool of choice was the Encyclopedia Britannica and one had to pay a visit to a brick-and-mortar travel agency for such info. He walked with purpose, navigating the complex’s labyrinthine causeways as I strode beside him.

The artist’s obvious love of classic sailing vessels is no more exemplified in his character’s adventures. As certain as the sun arises in the East, any vessel Groo boards will sink. The Wanderer’s capsized whole fleets in complete ignorance of his doings until only after he’s gotten his own feet wet, and then he’s still scratching his head as to what happened. It is said you only hurt that which you love, and this adage is no truer than in the works of humorists.

“Mira esa fillette; yo comiendo pan aqua nada…” I uttered as a particularly attractive woman passed. By no means am I fluent in Spanish, as anyone with a passing knowledge of the language could attest from my bastardized spelling of the phrase above, which translated should read, “Look at the filets and here I am stuck with nothing but bread and water.” (I welcome corrections from any Spanish-savvy Bloglodytes in the audience) The saying was taught to me by a good friend, an émigré from Caraças, Venezuela, who was a fellow waiter at Tavern on the Green. He explained that it was a common lament in his country when a man espies a fetching female. The moment seemed right to test my usage of the maxim on an honest-to-goodness Spaniard.

“You speak Spanish,” Aragonés responded in surprise.


My facility in mastering the language would later be off-set, when Aragonés talked of his daughter who was starting a career in modeling. He pulled a picture from his wallet that would’ve made any Man of the Cloth rue his vows; a tall, curvaceous creature with sultry dark features held in abeyance by the signature Aragonés smile. As the cartoonist explained of his progeny’s plans to move to New York City in pursuit of her dream vocation, I casually remarked that she could crash at my place while she searched for a more permanent residence.

“I don’t think so,” Aragonés snorted with a smirk and a “what-do-you-think-I-was-born-yesterday?” type of look. The photo was quickly secreted back into his billfold.

Note to self: refrain from making lewd comments about women before discovering about a person’s knockout daughter. Yeah, like Aragonés would never have seen through my ruse otherwise!

The so-called “authentic Spanish Galleon” was about as authentic as “New-York-style bagels” outside of New York. And it didn’t take an expert to come to that conclusion. The fact that the boat was about the size of the S.S. Minnow was a clear giveaway. The ships in Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride were more credible. Aragonés was visibly and audibly annoyed. “This is what they say is an ‘authentic Spanish Galleon?’” he grumbled before about-facing in disappointment. The instant lasted about as long as a heartbeat. Aragonés is not one to dwell on the negative, instead embracing the positive, finding wonder and excitement in every new thing he confronts regardless of how small. I half-expected him to abruptly stop and blurt, “Look, squirrel!” at any minute.

About a year later, I bumped into Aragonés again at the 1991 Mid-Ohio Con (see “I Slept With Stan Lee, Part I”) The Roger Price-produced annual comics cavalcade—one of the best in the country—was celebrating its first year away from the Mansfield, Ohio, fairgrounds. I couldn’t be happier. The hangar in which the shows transpired had all the ambience of the DMV and its cement floors were easily felt through the nigh-existent leather foot pads of my Spider-Man suit, freezing this itsy bitsy Spidey’s tootsies and stiffening my agility, so I moved like a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion dinosaur.

The new venue was the ballroom and anterooms of a hotel in nearby Columbus. The space was blessedly carpeted. I was so happy. Upon making my entrance I almost hit the floor and began squirming on my back the way some dogs greet their masters. Along with the new environs, RAP Productions—Price’s media company, which ran the conventions—also redirected its charitable efforts. The proceeds from the event’s customary art auction would now benefit Ronald McDonald House.

 Once again, Spider-Man would aid in this noble endeavor, assisting auctioneer Price as the Carol Merrill to his Monty Hall, presenting each item as it came up for bids. I had no qualms about being the event’s mobile easel. It was fun, gave me a opportunity to see everything up close, and allowed me a way to share in the excitement without losing my shirt… or webs, as it were. At least, that was the theory. I wasn’t exempt from partaking in the bidding if I so chose—my money was as good as the next person’s!

The yearly bidding bonanza was always a highlight of the show and featured lots from all the guests, whether pages of original comic book art or custom items created especially for the affair. Internationally-renowned “duck” artist, Don Rosa, painted a jaw-dropping Scrooge McDuck, with Donald and nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, playing in a treasure-filled room of the sort one could envision Aladdin discovering his legendary lamp. I would have attempted to win this tour de force myself had I not been saving my shekels for another prize, one that would encompass both the thrill of an extraordinary piece of artwork with the unforgettable memory of watching its creation.

Upon the far side of stage left/audience right was erected an easel, on which was placed a huge sheet of Foam-Cor, measuring approximately 41 x 31 inches. At the auction’s start, Aragonés climbed to the stage to much ballyhooing by the attendees. With his back to the audience, he planted himself on the chair set before the awesome art board and was presented with a half dozen black Sharpies. The minute the first lot went up for bid, Aragonés put marker to matte. There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation, a period of taking in the canvas; Aragonés proceeded as he always does, as if his stream of consciousness and hand were one. No pauses; just drawing. It’s a remarkable thing to watch, the illustrative equivalent of a ballet. I often find myself agonizing over the construction of a single sentence. Aragonés’s ideas and manifestation thereof are just shy of instant.

Five minutes later...

Even while carrying out my duties, I watched the uncanny cartoonist create magic. And given my position to the left of Aragonés, a right-hander, I had the best seat in the house. The audience was none the wiser. And it’s not as if the audience couldn’t see the whites of my eyes. That’s all they could see. It was the pupils behind the whites of the Spider-Man costume’s occipital region they couldn’t make out, and they remained askance, watching the MAD illustrator most of the time. Heck, I’d have been able to keep my peepers closed and no one would’ve noticed… until I fell off the stage, that is.

Aragonés doing what he does best

Aragonés began in the board’s center, and immediately I recognized the prominent proboscis and googly eyes of Groo. It was soon evident that the witless Wanderer was in the midst of a fray, his dual swords afrenzy. I cheated over to where Aragonés was working. “You may as well sign that to me when you’re done,” I whispered.

“You want it signed to ‘Spider-Man’?” he replied with a devilish grin.

The Don Rose pièce de résistance came up for bid and was stolen for a mere $210! I bit my lip under the mask at the low-ball figure and silently tsk-tsked the attendees for not recognizing Rosa’s talent. Damn! If I’d had the slightest idea how much Sergio’s piece would go for, I might have tried to capture the duck masterwork myself as well as the grandiose Groo.

Aragonés, meanwhile, had exhausted one Sharpie, and was quickly heading toward his third, which he’d made ample use of before abruptly standing. “What should I do with these?” he asked, holding out the remaining Sharpies.

A dumbfounded Price held out his hand, taking the writing instruments from Aragonés as he stepped off the stage and headed back to the main floor and his booth, where a line of fans awaited him. There weren’t more than a couple dozen lots total, and Price worried that wouldn’t allow enough time, even for the quick-drawing cartoonist. But with a fair number of items still awaiting the auction block, Aragonés had completed his masterpiece. And what an eye-opener it was: Groo slicing, dicing and making julienne fries of a mass of miscreants—although knowing the brain-dead barbarian, they very well may have been innocents—accompanied by faithful dog Rufferto, taking a chunk out of one victim’s leg, and witnessed by series regulars witches Arba and Dakarba.

Finally, the last lot standing was Sergio’s Groo, which seemed appropriate since the character was often the only one still on his feet by the end of his stories! As the bidding progressed it quickly became apparent that my biggest opponent for the lot would be comic book writer Roger Stern. Soon we were in a bidding war. I love Stern’s work. I believe him to be one of the best Spider-Man scribes ever. I was also fortunate to know Stern, the person, through my frequent appearances at Mid-Ohio Con at which he was a beloved perennial guest; a sweet, unassuming man, whose stellar work is only matched by his humility. I would rather my rival for the Aragonés have been a complete stranger, someone I could resent had I lost the battle.

The bidding flew past the hundred-dollar mark; two hundred, then three. I wondered whose bank account would falter first, mine or Stern’s, as the price crept toward four hundred. But suddenly Stern blinked, hesitating just long enough for the gavel to land, making me the highest bidder. Price thanked everyone and the auction was officially over. I’d been in the suit for more than two hours and long overdue for a break. But instead I carried my new acquisition to Aragonés’s booth.

“You got it!” he enthused.

“I told you it was mine,” I asserted, before asking for his autograph.

Vroom! and Aragonés, San Diego Comic Con 2011

Aragonés deferred adding anything more to the art, on which he’d already bestowed his John Hancock. Instead, he created a fresh piece for me: Grew and Rufferto skulking through the jungle, tracking something. Behind them stands Spider-Man about to tap the mindless misanthrope on the back (And as soon as I find the piece, I will post it—UGH!). Curiosity eventually got the better of the artist and he inquired about the winning bid. He seemed nonplussed. I couldn’t determine from his reaction whether he was satisfied with the result or not. For me, $400 was a hearty chunk of my savings, but an expense I’ve never regretted.

So as I watched Aragonés sign the IDW tome exalting Groo, I couldn’t help but think of my own oversized artwork of The Wanderer, which the cartoonist had assured me was the largest work he’d ever done. Sure, The Artist’s Edition was impressive… but mine’s bigger!

Getting this home was NOT easy!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Web Stock

What does stockcar racing and abused children have in common? Setting aside those twisted individuals who might venture a punch line (no pun intended) to such a question, you’d be hard pressed to answer unless you lived or visited the Bradenton, Florida, area in the latter part of the eighties, early nineties. For it was in this lesser-known Sunshine State city, located along its western shore about an hour and a half north of Tampa, that you’d find the DeSoto Speedway, owned and operated by Tom D. Stimus.

The DeSoto Speedway

Stimus was a highly successful used car salesman with several dealerships in the Manatee County area; a local legend along the lines of P.T. Barnum, whose showmanship and crazy stunts rivaled that of the celebrated circus legend. Stimus, however, kept his piquant persona primarily pent in the television ads he splayed across the area airwaves. The formula was simple. Tom strode by a bevy of buggies, slamming his palm on each as he proclaimed the prices to his audience much like a vehicular evangelist. His oratory would culminate in some sensational fashion.

Poking fun at himself, Stimus aired a series of ads, featuring a stereotypical southern sheriff who charges the pre-owned pitch man with disorderly conduct—being overly obnoxious and loud—in his commercials!

In one such spot the hawker of horseless carriages finalized his fulminating freneticism with a warning that any car buyers shopping at his competitors’ would be burned by high prices, at which point he set a stuntman ablaze to illustrate the point. Of course, this particular strategem may have been self-defeating. After all, there must have been many who opted to get figuratively scorched rather than risk facing the loon who literally sets people aflame!

No surprise these theatrics, reminiscent of the grotesque grapplers’ verbal tête à têtes featured between World Wrestling Entertainment matches, led Stimus to employ one of the faux-sport’s own, Dusty Rhodes, to assist in his carny acts. The wrestling icon, who resembles what might have resulted from cross-breeding the monster from Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein with a bean bag chair, took to hustling autos the way volcanoes take to virgins.

In 1986, Stimus took out full-page ads in the area newspapers designed as “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters, featuring the mug of Moammar Gadhafi, after the Libyan dictator threatened the United States. Rumors circulated that a ten-million–dollar bounty was raised and Stimus promised a reward to anyone who dispatched the Arab ruler.

As aforementioned, this mockish behavior was only evident in the motorcar merchandiser’s colorful TV and radio spots. Off-camera, Stimus was a genial gent—beloved by most, loathed by few—who cared deeply about children… and stockcar racing! His love for the latter led Stimus to purchase and refurbish the DeSoto Speedway, while his conviction for the former couldn’t be more evident than by the establishment of the Tom’s Kids Foundation, which worked toward helping victims of child abuse in Manatee County. To that end, the speedway was outfitted with a picnic and playground, so families could enjoy racing together in a fun and safe atmosphere.

It was only a few months ago that I revealed to you, My Faithful Bloglodytes, Marvel’s joint venture with the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse (NCPCA) to use Spider-Man as a means of educating youngsters about recognizing the three forms of abuse: sexual, emotional and physical (see “An Ounce of Prevention”). Unfortunately, despite the good intentions behind the program, there weren’t a whole lot of funds for promoting it beyond the confines of America’s various school systems. Further outreach came from whatever media attention Spidey’s visit might elicit. And let’s be honest, as important a story as educating kids on abuse may be and regardless of how cool us nerds may find our hero being used in this manner, covering such events would depend on whether it was a slow news day or not.

Even if it were a day deprived of shootings, robberies, rape or any number of perceived meatier fare, a guy dressed as a superhero—even one as iconic as Ye Olde Web-Swinger, flown in directly from said character’s corporate HQ—speaking to area students about this subject would rarely make the front page and most often be buried in the same section as the local woman who collects potato chips, which look like famous people. Some more conservative parts of the country may veer away from the matter altogether, fearing reprisal from its readership who embrace the antiquated and dangerous notion that children should be protected with ignorance not education!

Holy Spud!

Stimus only learned of the program when he saw an article in a Dayton, Ohio, newspaper while on a trip to that enlightened state. He immediately contacted Marvel to find out how he could enlist Spider-Man to visit schools in Bradenton as well as appear at the DeSoto Speedway. Now I’d gigged in Dayton on several occasions during my Webhead tenure, so it’s possible that the appearance which caught Stimus’s attention could very well have been one of my own. But since I didn’t keep records of the hundreds of Marvel jobs I did every year, I’ve no way of knowing. But I’m fairly sure the trip to the DeSoto Speedway was my first gig in Bradenton.

To access the town one must travel on Route 275 south from St. Petersburg over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, a nearly four-mile span that arcs gracefully over Tampa Bay and makes travelers—this one at least—feel they are ascending to Heaven. My host for the trip, a minion of Stimus, felt it prudent to relate the wonder’s tragic past as we traversed its cabled arch. I was surprised to learn that this was the second bridge. The first, a cantilevered design that opened in 1971, had a mere 150-foot clearance. One morning in May 1980, the span was struck during a blinding rainstorm by the ship Summer Venture... during rush hour no less. The center section toppled and thirty-five lives were lost. Those poor victims simply drove into oblivion. I still shudder to think about it, and for the rest of our trip over the Skyway, my stomach was in my throat.

The next day I visited three schools, delivering a message about Emotional Abuse—later NCPCA gigs would feature a presentation, which incorporated all three types of abuse—to students ranging from kindergartners to third graders. There weren’t any admissions afterward to either myself or the on-site expert, John Hobbs, from Tom’s Kids Foundation as we greeted the kids and signed comic books, nor were children running screaming from the auditoriums after being exposed to such reprehensible teaching. And I’ll bet they grew up without the least bit of stigmatism because of it.

At the final school in my schedule, a reporter from the Bradenton Herald asked a couple of first graders to remain behind, so his accompanying photographer could take pictures while I spoke with the kids about Emotional Abuse. To keep the li’l ’uns focused, I made the discussion into a game, asking them if they could give me examples of “words that hurt.” I was always gladdened by the result of these personal encounters. The knowledge that the children retained about the heady subject matter showed me that my message wasn’t getting lost, but rather was reinforced by the costume, and more importantly, wasn’t creating petrified prepubescents. The wee ones were always smiling and happy and seemed appreciative that they learned something so substantive. To quote John Candy from Home Alone...

 “They get over it. Kids are resilient like that.”

When I noticed the photo and article in the next morning’s paper, I was both pleased and annoyed. Unsurprisingly, the reporter asked Hobbs about the man behind the mask. Like every other newsperson before him, he hoped to get the scoop of the century and expose everyone’s Favorite Neighborhood Web-Slinger. The feelings and affect on the child population of Manatee County be damned… We’re talkin’ Pulitzer, here! I’d long come to expect such unethical behavior from the unprincipled press. Just once, I would love to have been shocked by a reporter who did more than give lip service to the idea of “journalistic integrity.”

But what rankled me more were the responses given to this poor man’s Kolchak. Apparently, he didn’t get the memo from Marvel about how to treat questions about the Spidey portrayer, which is basically as you would if he were the genuine article, i.e. a superhero with a secret identity, based in New York City. This interview-challenged Cretan replied that he did not know the name of the man in the suit (okay so far…) “because Marvel will not allow the actor’s name to be released (Aarrgh!).” Bad enough, Hobbs referred to me as an “actor,” but to then infer that there was a conspiracy behind my anonymity was deplorable. Of course, the salacious member of the media ran with it. He probably had to change his underwear on the way home, he was so excited. I certainly hope Hobbs was better at speaking about issues dealing with child abuse!

Hobbs went on to explain one of the goals of the Foundation: “…to build a complex of single-family cottages for abuse victims on a property near the DeSoto Speedway…” I’m all for creating a haven for victims of abuse. But outside a car-racing stadium?!! Isn’t planting people within the confines of the deafening engines’ roar of a speedway a different form of abuse? I’m sure—I hope—the idyllic enclave would be far enough away for its inhabitants not to suffer from the noise, but Hobbs could have been clearer about what he meant by “near.”

I finally met the man himself, Tom Stimus, at the track the next evening. Had I been privy to his outrageous media personality, I might have been intimidated, certainly wary, when meeting him. All I’d heard about the man to that point was that he had built a used-car empire and invested some of the monies earned to purchase and rejuvenate a stagnant local raceway as well as establish a charitable organization to help abuse victims. Far from trepidation or skepticism, I held nothing but esteem for the man.

Stimus turned out to be more jolly than crazy, with a physique and face that would make Mrs. Claus proud. He didn’t smile so much as beam, his eyes condensed to a pair of crescents by the press of his pudgy cheeks. His hair and wardrobe were an anachronism, representative of a different era. The former was a pomade–sculpted, perfectly symmetrical and prominently side-burned coif, ideal for a touring company of Jersey Boys.

As for his ensemble, at least Stimus was consistent. It suited his ’do to a tee, the type of outfit seen on appliance salesmen in the fifties. It was a look last seen in Revenge of the Nerds, only without the pocket protector. He reminded me somewhat of my dad, except Stimus’s was a face wrinkled and formed by a lifetime smiling, not scowling.

Anyone who knows my father will see the irony in this picture

Unsurprisingly, he had a meaty paw, matching arms and a hearty handshake. I feared my phalanges would by mangled and visibly throb like Fred Flintstone’s after Bamm-Bamm had gotten a hold of it. But Stimus’s grip, albeit firm, was respectful. He didn’t need to affirm his manhood with an immature display of machismo, i.e. crushing handshake.

The track was already bursting with fans when I arrived at 6 pm, though the racing wasn’t set to begin until an hour thence. The crowd certainly didn’t develop in minutes and I’d guess the attendees flooded the gates well before they opened at 5. It was a testament to Stimus’s success with the speedway that the place was packed so early. It was also a savvy business move to open the park at dinnertime, ensuring good concession sales, as fans wouldn’t want to risk eating elsewhere for fear of arriving too late to get a seat.

The early-evening opening and start time also made it more conducive to families, who could enjoy a meal and entertainment and still get the kids home and in bed before 9, if they so desired. To foment the family-friendly atmosphere, Stimus had a picnic area and playground built inside the complex, thus providing plenty of activity for children while they awaited the races to begin.

Stimus proceeded to take me on a quick tour of the facilities. Without a frame of reference—I’d never been to a race track before—I can’t comment on its standards, but it was in pristine condition, clean, freshly-painted and uncluttered; it seemed like it had only been built a few days before. I was informed I’d be transforming in his office underneath the stadium, which was ideally situated for my intended signing area, the locale of the picnic tables.

We then entered a spot where parked a lone stock car over which a trio of men were tinkering. More precisely, they were emphatically discussing something as they gesticulated about the car’s backside. I couldn’t fathom what the issue was, but had little time to ponder the situation when my thoughts were interrupted by Stimus, who was in a quandary as to how to introduce me to the crowd. Sure, he could’ve simply announced my arrival over the PA system, but such an unspectacular entrance was anathema to the showman that was Tom Stimus. He suggested my arriving in a racecar, to which I was agreeable, envisioning my Spidey self positioned in the passenger seat, waving to the fans as I cruised by. Again, Stimus interrupted my musings, only this time far more abruptly.

“The only problem my boys are having is how to secure you to the top.”  


“We were thinking of rigging a rope to the trunk and extending it upward with a piece of wood you could hold onto,” said one of the men.

It was at this moment that I realized I’d misheard Stimus. He wasn’t proposing I enter the track in the vehicle, but rather on it! These gents wanted me to arrive atop the stock car, mounted to the trunk with nothing but my grip on a makeshift tether, like a performer at Cypress Gardens. And here I was nodding my head like Dopey. What have I agreed to?! Had I acceded to how fast I’d be traveling, yet! I pictured myself flying off the back as the car hit the first turn, holding on for dear life as I bounced along the tarmac like the cans behind a wedding limousine.

The one time I attempted to water ski, I actually rose successfully on my initial try, only to immediately plunge face-first in the water and swallow half the Atlantic before letting go of the handle. All attempts thereafter faired even worse. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the mischievous side of me wanting to whiz by the stands like Fonzi in the infamous “jump-the-shark” episode of Happy Days, only without the eventual notoriety that continues to live on in infamy.

“This stunt is going to make my career!”

Stimus’s “boys” had strapped a rope through the trunk, following the base of the rear window, where the ends were tied at its center, a single cord dangling a few feet away and secured to a chunk of wood to be used as a handle. The cable hearkened to the type ubiquitous to jungle adventures, vital to the construction of bridges across vertiginous chasms, which inevitably confront the hero when fleeing angry tribesmen. The thick, fibrous braids prove nigh impossible to sever as the imperiled paladin races desperately to drop the span before his inexorable pursuers overtake him.

I had to admire their ingenuity, guilt welling up inside me as I contemplated telling them about nixing the ambitious plan. Oh, who the hell was I kidding? I leapt onto the car without pausing to discard my jacket before trying the cobbled tether. The rope was certainly strong enough—I imagine its use to this point was for towing disabled vehicles—and the length felt right as I posed à la Spider-Man, enacting my grand entrance and subsequent spin around the raceway. The dowel was a bit thick for my arachnid appendages to grip as firmly as I would have liked—the “boys” probably predicated my paws on Stimus’s when they fabricated it—but enough so that I could still keep from falling off even while waving to my adoring public… just so long as the speed was kept to a minimum.

With assurances of the vehicle moving no faster than an octogenarian and zero hour looming, I hustled back to Stimus’s office to change. The tinkering triumvirate promised to have my spider-mobile ready to go upon my return ten minutes later.

By the time I reappeared in the red-and-blue, the corrugated door had been raised and the Webhead wheels aligned before it, prepped for my coming out party. One of my three inventive motorheads sat behind the wheel, ready to drive me to glory. A cacophony of engines, a stampede of revving horsepower, filled the space from outside the portal. It sounded as though the race had started without me. I could barely hear my screamed query of concern as to whether my fears had merit. My “pit crew” seemed quite amused, their smirking miens saying, “This here Yankee don’t know nothin’ ’bout racing.”

The explanation had me thinking I was every bit the moron they believed me to be, especially since the noise continued unabated during the few minutes we chatted, meaning that the cars were not moving, yet! Duh! The deafening din was merely the sound of idling motors, albeit mega-powerful ones. But still, had I two brain cells to rub together, I would have realized the sound would have modulated in volume as the cars circumnavigated the track had they been in motion. The competitors were in position awaiting the signal that Spider-Man was ready. They would then proceed around the circuit at a leisurely pace, my vehicle bringing up the rear.

“So how many times will I be traveling the track,” I asked.

“Just two,” one of the men replied.

“Then you’ll bring me back in here, right?” I said, directing the question to my erstwhile chauffeur.

“Heck, no! The race’ll be starting by then, and the gate’ll be closed. You’ll have to hop off and come through the side door at the starting line while I drive the pace car into the pit area.”

In a Spider-Man suit, no one can see your jaw drop...

Apparently on the second loop of the oval, the race would begin, the stocks putting pedal to the metal as the green flag signaled the event to begin. I’d be helpless atop my no-longer-so-funny car until the entire field had entered the race before we reached the point where I could hop off and skedaddle out some door I’d never seen before, all whilst a couple dozen automobiles—thousands of pounds of steel—careen back around the speedway at a dizzying velocity toward me.

“Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time to get off the track before the cars reach you.”

Maybe they did notice my jaw drop…

Where I was nervous before, I was scared shitless now. Fuck a slow, steady pace. I don’t care if I appear as nothing but a red-and-blue blur as I speed past the stands. Just get me out of there STAT! I didn’t want to end up roadkill, later to be the main ingredient in Granny Clampett’s arachnid equivalent to ’possum stew.

“Boil, boil, toil and trouble...”

I clambered aboard—I couldn’t exactly renege on my commitment at this juncture—and the vehicle entered the speedway. The roar of the crowd the minute I breached the entryway drowned out the turbulence of the motors and for a moment I forgot about what lay ahead. I needn’t have worried about my balance; the speedway surface was smooth and I stood firm, seemingly gliding past my screaming fans.

Visions of an earlier trip to Florida my family took when I was twelve filled my mind. My father had surprised us at Christmas with what would be my first ever trip to Walt Disney World. En route from the airport a billboard advertising Sea World caught our collective eye. It dually featured legendary comedian Bob Hope’s appearance at the venerable aquatic theme park and what made my heart skip a beat, the “Superheroes at Sea World Show.” I was a relative newbie to comic books, a late blooming Marvel Zombie. But when I saw the promo shot of rival publisher DC Comics stars Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash—among others—water skiing atop one another’s shoulders in a pyramid, I forgot all about why we were in Florida. Mickey who?!

To a comics geek of the 70’s, a time when the licensing of our beloved characters was a barren landscape, this type of exposure transcended allegiances. I heard nothing in the rental beyond the huzzah of my brain cells, and it didn’t surprise me one iota when my mom and two sisters detoured to Sea World to secure tickets on our way to the hotel. Even they realized the gravitas of the moment; a once in a lifetime occurrence not to be missed. And like me, wanted to waste as little time as possible seeing this historic event; the very next night we headed back to see the show!

The seats were midway up the bleaches of the open-air amphitheatre where the water-skiing stunt extravaganzas took place. To either side were ramps and other props, festooned in stars and stripes; painted a panoply of vibrant colors; and accessorized with giant ballooned sound effects, the kind ubiquitous to the superhero slug-fests in funny books. I was shaking with excitement. Had I been the Flash, I would’ve vibrated through my seat. Suddenly, the lights went down and the PA announcer introduced Bob Hope! The crowd went wild. I politely clapped. He was obviously just the warm-up act, which explained his mention on the billboard.

Hope’s routine seemed to go on forever, and I finally asked my mother when the superheroes were going to be coming out. I was crushed to find out they weren’t. We were there to see Bob Hope! I couldn’t have been more disappointed. Here, I was experiencing a National Treasure—BOB-FUCKING-HOPE—and I’m dwelling on missing an aquatic stunt show; not even a Marvel-themed one!

This is the actual ticket stub from the Bob Hope show... 
SIX BUCKS!!! I would’ve paid twice that to see the Justice League water ski!

My revelry was suddenly broken by a pronounced increase in engine noise before me. I swiveled away from the stands and saw the green flag waving as the racecars burst into high gear across the starting line. From my point of view—the final turn in the circuit—the vehicles in the lead vaulted around the initial turn and would catch up to my car in seconds. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon… MOVE!

But of course I had to wait until the rest of the field in front of me entered the fray. It was like standing at the back of a green light, edging toward an intersection when you’re in a hurry; the only difference was someone’s life was at stake: MINE! I nearly hopped off the car and pushed. Blessedly, we got to my point of departure, but the pack was entering the third turn and baring down on me. I couldn’t have moved more quickly had I been on fire. I skirted through the door and kept running toward the autograph area, ignoring the two amigos—of the three who weren’t driving—awaiting my egress from the track.

“Hey, how was it?” they asked as I vaulted past.

“Can’t talk now. Got to get to the picnic tables,” I called back. “Wouldn’t want to keep the children waiting!”

Despite my hurry, there was already a mob awaiting my arrival, every one of them holding a copy of the custom NCPCA/Spider-Man Emotional Abuse comic book. During the two-hour signing, I must’ve been asked by every other child in line how it was to ride atop the stock car.

Piece o’ cake,” I replied, though my heart was still pumping in my chest like a jack hammer from the experience. “Sure beats going toe-to-toe with Dr. Octopus.”

The remainder of the evening was spent watching the races, more than a half dozen featuring various types of automobiles. I wouldn’t know a stock car from Stockard Channing and was about as interested. Notwithstanding my love of Hot Wheels cars as a child—I even had the famed Mongoose & Snake Drag Race track—I never got into auto racing. Even the advent of Danica Patrick couldn’t sway my interest (although my URL provider is GoDaddy. Hmm…).

Nice trunk...

The sport barely projected a blip onto the Boston sports radar screen, and other than the Indianapolis 500, was never broadcast in the area in my youth. Stimus and his crew tried to explain the basics and pointed out impressive moves that certain drivers were making, but to me, it was just a bunch of loud vehicles going endlessly around a giant asphalt oval… yawn.

Maybe if they put superheroes atop the cars as they sped past…

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

“How Can These Guys Lay Off Pitches That Close?”

“Here's the pitch. Ball four, and he walked him.
That's going to bring the tying run to the plate for the Toronto Blue Jays. A little excitement here at the end.
I know I wouldn't have it any other way,
and I'm sure you folks feel the same.”

Faithful Bloglodytes of Heroes need not be reminded of the narrator’s physical ineptitude. To call me athletic would be akin to calling Kim Kardashian talented. Oh, I played the occasional game of kickball or what was referred to as “squash”—same as the former, only the man up hit the oversized rubber ball from their own mitts before running the bases—in grade school. I was never a powerful hitter or booter, but I was small and quick, which helped in getting on base and served me well when escaping the clutches of class bullies.

I was one of the smarter kids, though the blue ribbon would probably have gone to Maryann Wojner, she of the shoulder-length dirty-blond curls and iridescent blue eyes… not that I (ahem) noticed. Of course, being tops in school is like being public enemy number one: you’re everybody’s target. Living apart from my classmates only exacerbated the situation. I grew up in a house on the main commercial street of town—between an Oldsmobile dealership and a funeral parlor and across from a gas station, long-forgotten cemetery and supermarket—too far for a young boy to walk to play with his peers. Thus, I didn’t have the after-school interactivity of my classmates, which contributed to my alienation and shyness.

My dad was never around much before he and my mom split—when I was eight—and less so thereafter. He was always quick to criticize me, though, with the length of my hair being a particular favorite point of contention. Then there was his keen interest in my athletic activities, or rather, my lack thereof. “Why don’t you play (insert sport here),” was a typical refrain following the opening verse on the measure of my mane. The remarks were made with such vehemence as to be more of a shakedown than an absentee father’s interest in his son’s life. All that was missing was the fizzling bare light bulb above my head. It’s as if I’d somehow offended him.

Not once did he play catch with me, show me the proper way to hold a football or take me to a game. He actually gave me a football, helmet and shoulder pads for Christmas one year, as if the mere ownership of the proper equipment was all that was required to induce a person to participate in a sport. I’m sure Mario Batali’s career as a chef began when his father dumped a couple bags of groceries on his lap one day before leaving the house.

Shunning baseball was harder. The car dealership’s lot may have wrapped behind our backyard, but just beyond that was the park where the area’s yearly Little League tryouts were held. The weeks leading up to them I was pelted, prodded and verbally assaulted by my dad to partake in America’s pastime. Did he offer to take me over to the fields himself? What, and elevate his status from sperm donor to father?!! Hell, no!

It wasn’t until a few years later that I picked up a bat for the first time. By then fate had decided that the one ray of hope I had growing up—my skinniness and speed—had expired. I’d ballooned to two hundred pounds, though my height remained constant: a scant 5' 7".

My mother blamed the Prednisone that I was put on after suffering a bout of Bell’s Palsy in sixth grade. True, one of the side effects of the drug is weight gain, but that just happened to also be one of the unfortunate genetic underpinnings of being a Vrattos. “Difficulty in controlling emotion,” “depression,” “mania” and “psychosis” are also listed as possible results of using Prednisone, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference in my level of mental instability before using the drug and after!

Thankfully the partial paralysis of my face that resulted from the affliction went away—like I needed another obstacle in my treacherous climb toward adulthood—but the additional girth in my midriff remained. Gone was the elusiveness that had saved my life more than a few times in elementary school, just in time to have organized sports foisted upon me.

The private all-boys school my parents enrolled me in, and to which I was accepted and studied from seventh to twelfth grades, had a strict policy of every boy participating in sports the fall and spring seasons of the school year—the winter season was optional. One’s choices in the spring were tennis (Sh’yeah, right!), Lacrosse (Isn’t that what they nailed Joan d’Arc to?) or baseball. Unsurprisingly, I picked the latter.

There was such a turnout for America’s pastime in my sixie year—newbies who faced half a dozen years ’til graduation—that two teams were established, the “adepts” and the “inepts.” Guess which category I fell into? I didn’t mind. The thought of displaying my total lack of athleticism in front of anyone, never mind my peers, terrified me. Having to do so in front of my class’s baseball elite would only have heightened my failings.

 I took up position in right field, perennial home of untalented ball players. The few times the coach hit to me in practice, I zigzagged the field like I was being shot at, only to arrive too late to catch the ball… if I was near it at all. I wouldn’t have made the roster of the Bad News Bears. My right-field play made Lupus look like a Gold Glover.

As for hitting, they changed the name to missing when it was my turn at batting practice. I don’t think I could’ve hit a T-ball, if that were even an option. My “talents” were only put to the test one time: the final game of the season. I think the coach was obligated to play everyone at least once. Fortunately, the season-ender wasn’t a nail-biter. I swear I heard him sigh in relief as the opposing team increased the lead to the point where it would’ve taken Murderer’s Row for us to have any hope of a comeback. At least he could utilize me safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t lose the game.

I made a single plate appearance and struck out in three pitches. I take solace in knowing that I only swung at the third one. At least my opponent had to earn the first two strikes himself. Thus endeth my baseball career. All of which made throwing out the first pitch at a Major League Baseball game so-o-o-o-o-o sweet.

I’d barely defrosted from my trip across Canada for the countrywide kickoff press tour for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police’s custom Spider-Man comic book program (see “Northern Exposure, Parts I and II”), when the second book in the series was released. “Double Trouble” sported both cover and interior art by Herb Trimpe and was written by Dwayne McDuffie.

Continuing the anti-drug theme of the inaugural book—“Skating on Thin Ice”—the Chameleon infiltrates a science fair in Fredericton, Ontario, interested in one of the students’ projects, one that he believes could lead to untold fortunes. To get closer to the object of his desire, he takes on the aspect of a student, one dabbling in drugs. As luck would have it, Daily Bugle photographer, Peter Parker, is sent to Canada to take pix at the fair. What are the chances? Our Web-tastic Web-Slinger exposes the culprit and foils his nefarious plans, serving up a few lessons about the evils of drugs in the process.

Even given the tighter scripting and storytelling of the era—as opposed to many of today’s comics penned in the “decompressed” style, which would tell the same tale over the course of twelve issues, each of which could be read in five minutes—one would be hard-pressed to have finished “Double Trouble” before the initial triumvirate of Canadian PSAs was completed with the release of “Hit and Run.”

Steering away from the serious subject of drug abuse, the Toronto-set tertiary tome presents the issue of bicycle safety as the subtext to its Spider-Man adventure. To replace the excitement that may have been lost by switching from the creepiness of drugs to the less sensational, yet no less important, topic of bike safety, scribe Dwayne McDuffie includes Ghost Rider in the mix. The scene when the flaming-skull–benoggined motorcycle-riding demon warns a group of youngsters to “wear your helmets… Or you will see me again” is all-at-once unsettling and funny. After all, the Harley Hellion never dons one himself. True, it could be argued that he’s already dead—what’s the worst that could happen—but there’s still the point of his threatening the children. Heck, I’d be wearing a helmet 24/7 after that!

As with the first two books in the series, “Hit and Run” is peppered with Canadian personalities and Spidey’s signature web-slinging takes him swinging by, over and from the landmarks of the city, including a nice shot of the Wall-Crawler swinging from the city’s preeminent skyline feature, the CN? Tower. No surprise, since the brunt of the adventure is set within the Skydome—now Rogers Centre—home of the twice champion Blue Jays, located at the base of the towering edifice.

All but forgotten Canadian comic-book artist Jim Craig, who had seemingly dropped off the face of the Earth—certainly the face of the funny book industry—was rediscovered by oft-mentioned Eric Conroy (see “Northern Exposure, Parts I and II”), the marketing brains behind the program. Craig's limited funny-book resume includes the interior penciling chores for Marvel’s What If... #1: “What If Spider-Man Had Joined the Fantastic Four?” He took over the art chores for the series with issue three and his dynamic, quirky style—reminiscent of Todd McFarlane and Bernie Wrightson—makes one wonder why he ever left the 4-color world.

After the relatively subdued release of “Double Trouble”—a WaWa signing here, a Tim Horton appearance there—the third issue was heralded in spectacular fashion: Spider-Man throwing out the first pitch at a Toronto Blue Jays game! And the honor of donning the red-and-blue befell to Eric’s favorite man in tights: me, the anti-Mr. Baseball. Fortunately, I wasn’t expected to hit the ball or field. Otherwise, it would’ve been a long night indeed, though a fitting punishment, emphasis on the pun.

Y’see, I frequently quipped with those young charges at gigs who were obviously fans of America’s favorite pastime—whether it be apparent from a hat or T-shirt they wore—about what a good ballplayer I was. Before they could respond I’d mention how exceptional I was at fielding because I was great at catching flies. Get it? Spider…? Catching flies…? I keep lobbing them to ya, son, and you keep missing them. Boy’s as sharp as a bag full of wet mice. Anyway, The kids would stare while their parents simultaneously groaned and chuckled. T’would serve me right to be to have to prove it!

Despite my dismal credentials, it wasn’t like I couldn’t throw a baseball. I enjoyed the occasional game of Pickle (aka Squeeze) and participated in softball games. It also helped that my oldest sister was the athlete that I wasn’t, so we engaged in a game of catch now and again, in between our one-on-one street hockey matches in the backyard.

Still, though the inaugural throw of a ballgame is more of a ceremonial toss to the catcher than anything resembling a pitch, there is the onus of having one and only one shot at it. Oh, yeah, and thousands of people are watching you from the stands with millions more across the continent. There was also the certainty of making the highlight reel—not in a good way—of ESPN, never mind the various local sports telecasts, if I pulled an “epic fail.” If the pressure of the situation weren’t enough on its own, I had to contend with a skintight spandex outfit, which afforded skewed depth perception and zero tactility in my fingers.

So the last thing on my mind was throwing a strike; my main concern was simply getting the ball to the catcher without his having to perform some gymnastic maneuver to keep it from flying into the stands. I could always play a soft lob as me just being careful not to use my Spidey strength for fear of hurting the catcher, if so questioned by the reporters splayed out behind home plate and along the first and third baselines, with their shutterbug and camera man entourages, all there to get a good view of Spider-Man’s historic throw. But missing the target completely was out of the question. I was a superhero, after all, with powers and abilities far beyond those of the hoi polloi; not some octogenarian political figure or long-retired local sports hero. They could be forgiven; Spider-Man would not.

Is it any wonder my memories of the event are foggy at best. I have no recollection of donning the red-and-blue, although I must have at some point and somewhere within the Skydome facility. It may very well have been a janitor’s closet in the access corridors, which surround the field under the bleachers. I was escorted directly from the dressing room to my entrance point. Along the line I put on a Jays baseball hat. There was barely enough time for me to be nervous, never mind practice my pitch, though I recall being terrified as I waited in the wings for the PA announcer to introduce me to the thousands of fans, which filled the arena.

Somehow I got onto the field. I didn’t screw around; just trotted to the mound, as I would were I relieving the starter. My body was a tingle, and I felt as exposed as those dreams where you enter the classroom without any clothes on. “All we need is one pin, Rodney,” a quote from the successful Lite Beer commercials of the 70–80s, looped in my mind. The Rodney in question was Dangerfield and he indeed missed hitting a single bowling pin in the classic ad. I ignored the voices in my head and concentrated on the Blue Jays catcher, Pat Borders.

Thank God for the Jays cap. One thing I hadn’t counted on was the stadium lighting, which had the affect on me of snow blindness when I raised my head to any degree. The hat’s brim shielded those unforgiving beams as long as I tilted my head down, like former Red Sox reliever John Papelbon trying to garner a save. I “stared down” Borders to get a bead on where he was and affected a wind-up. Again, I wasn’t trying to impress anyone; I just didn’t want to make a fool of myself.

I released the ball and prayed that I judged the distance correctly. The ball did indeed arc toward the plate, but I hit the mark with little more than Borders having to adjust his mitt about a foot higher than its starting point. I needn’t be told what to do next: I jogged to home plate where Borders met me with a hearty handshake and praise for a ball well thrown. I apologized if it was a little hard, citing the excitement of the moment making me forget to ease up on using my powers. He seemed tickled by the exchange.

But now what do I do. I felt like Rudy after he’s finally allowed into the last Notre Dame game of the season. No one directed me off the field so I joined the players in the singing of both the Canadian and American national anthems. As is their wont, the fans cheered during the final measure and the game was afoot. As the home team, the Blue Jays would be hitting last, so they trotted out to the field, while their opponent, the Kansas City Royals prepared to bat. I kept expecting the umpire or other baseball Nabob to direct me off the field, but no such person materialized.

Of all the dugouts in all the ballparks in all the world, he has to be seated in mine!
So naturally I headed for the Blue Jays dugout where I’m greeted by Mookie Wilson, former New York Met and beloved Red Sox nemesis, whose infamous game-winning hit trickled through Bill Buckner’s legs in legendary Game Six of the 1986 World Series. Portraying the idol of the Big Apple, I betrayed not a wit of my Beantown roots. On the contrary, I was beside myself with effusiveness, heartily praising my “hometown” hero and perching next to him on the bench.

Next thing you know, Mookie and I are up on the stadium jumbo-tron, the fans screaming in delight as I playfully struck a pose and Wilson joined in with his own Spider-Man maneuver.

 Our antics proved too much of a distraction, however—apparently there was a ball game going on—and the aforementioned arena henchman appeared to ask that I accompany him from the park. I waved and bowed, relishing my remaining moments in the Big Show, as I headed for the exit. The Blue Jays went on to beat the Royals 4–2 on their way to the best record in the American League Eastern Division. They would eventually lose in the playoffs, but win back-to-back Major League Championships in ’92 and ’93. Coincidentally, future New York Yankees pitcher, David Wells, got the win, inspired no doubt by sharing the mound with Spider-Man!