Sobering Up

A guy once told me how he never wanted to sober up. I wondered what the hell he was talking about; was he nuts? His demeanor didn’t resemble someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol. As a matter of fact, in today’s parlance, I’d categorize him as pretty much together. Of course it’s what I would say today, being the kindly older gentlemen, that I have become.

Offering me the unsolicited advice was our high school custodian, Mr. Gross. In those days every school had one. I never knew his first name, or where he lived, or whether or not he was married or had children of his own. What we all recognized early on was that Mr. Gross was the key and essential figure for our schools ability to run on time and efficiently each and every day of the year. Succinctly stated, the man was in charge of almost everything. He was the man who could make or break the principal’s performance rating. Above all…he loved baseball. Most of the school year Mr. Gross was seen, but not heard. But when we entered our spring semester, it was baseball season, and Mr. Gross never missed a practice or any of our home games. As a matter of fact when we played an away game, he would get continual updates by telephone from other custodians around the league.

I personally became directly aware of Mr. Gross’s involvement after one particular away game. The school bus carried us back to the campus, and as we pulled in, I caught sight of Mr.Gross standing directly in front of our locker room building, waiting for us with a huge smile on his face. He wasn’t alone. I found out much later on, he had given out an account of the game to many of the students that afternoon. It was like a pep rally when I exited the bus. I had no inkling of what my day would turn into when I left for school that morning; it was to become the highlight of my young life. It was the very first game I pitched as a member of the schools varsity baseball team. Since I wasn’t scheduled to pitch that day, my Dad was not in attendance for the monumental event destined to transpire.

The Monumental Event:

It was the bottom of the third inning, our starting pitcher had loaded the bases, and there were no outs. I had been warming up in the bullpen for a brief few minutes when I got the call from our coach. “You’re in Kalmenson”, was all he said as he left the mound.

Here’s the Hollywood ending. It was amazingly all over in no more than ten minutes. The first batter I faced attempted to bunt the runner in from third base. When his attempt failed, I thought to myself about how little confidence his coach had in him. With bases loaded and nobody out, and at such an early time in the game, bunting wasn’t a very smart thing to do. My confidence level shot up. In nothing flat I had him out on strikes. It was then that our shortstop and second baseman came to the pitchers mound for a confab. Our second baseman broke the tension by saying, “Think of the headlines, Harv. Short to second to first and you’re out of the inning.” I threw the next pitch very high and tight so as not to let the batter get comfortable at the plate. Two pitches later, a ground ball was hit to our shortstop, George “Sparky” Anderson. It went as prescribed by our second baseman, short, to second, to first for a double play. My team and coach were all over me as I returned to our dug out, as high on life as could ever be perceived.


I was a kid of sixteen, participating at a high level of high school sports, and in general parading around school in my letterman sweater, under the impression I was indeed a “big man on campus.” It was difficult to fight back the swollen head syndrome. Think about it, even some adults develop over active egos, when expansive degrees of acclaim come their way; deserved, or not, earned or merely by being in the right place at the right time.

My head was filled to capacity with the dreams of a young man yet to accomplish anything of real substance. Like many teen-age boys, our values are unduly misled by the extent of our God given athletic prowess. By that I mean just because a guy can throw a baseball shouldn’t qualify him as the towns advice giver. But it happens. The local newspaper does a story on you, and the next thing you know your popularity around the school campus soars. Added into my mix was another pleasurable ingredient. My Father never missed seeing a ballgame when I was scheduled to pitch. And since he was my biggest fan, and as I recall one of the most ardent baseball enthusiasts I’d ever met, it served me well as a confidence builder.

Dad wasn’t there on my monumental first day, because I wasn’t scheduled to pitch. He got the complete story that evening when he came home from work.

When our second baseman had encouraged me to think of the headlines in order to get me to relax under those game conditions, I doubt if he ever perceived the extent of the press I would receive the very next day. The banner lead in headline read: “Kalmenson Comes Through”. Unbeknown to me was my Dad’s early on adulation over my baseball accomplishments that day. The newspaper accounts of the game was clipped and duplicated in order for Dad to send it out to all of his brothers on the east coast. In addition, for many years, he carried a copy of the article in his wallet, as a memento. The original of the article remains in my possession, and is framed and hangs on a wall in my office; more as a remembrance of my Father than as an ego feeding depiction of a teenage exploit.

Prowess displayed during a moment of a person’s life may help in the building of ones confidence, but it may also act as an ego stimulant. Certainly, confidence and ego are not the same, although many people have assumed the two must go together. Both can be bruised, and deflated. Both may become over done, as in an enlarged ego, or the person who is over confident. Don’t get the idea I knew what was happening during the monumental event I’ve described. I’m reporting what I truthfully recall to be the case during my teen-age years.

While I find myself smiling as I recollect the glory of a past event, there are other truths to behold. Recollection can make a man or woman shudder. I’m sure many of you out there can identify with being embarrassed over the recall of an adolescent occurrence. It may be a thing you did, or said without thinking.

There is also what I refer to as “Pride Recollections”. These are things you’ve done or said which somehow give you a warm feeling about yourself. They are yours to make wholesome use of, whenever you like. It can be a wow moment, like saying to yourself, I never thought I could pull it off, but I did. I studied for that damn test, and I aced it. One of my favorites, as told to me by a rather prominent actress. When inquiring about a certain role, this actress was told, “This play isn’t for you”. And then she went on to star in it, a movie was made, she starred in that also, and now long ago retired, she recalls the expression on the face of the individual who told her she wasn’t good enough in the first place.

For me personally, it’s an occurrence that transpired just before I was to graduate from the same high school where Mr. Gross remained on as school custodian. It had been a full two years since Mr. Gross made the remark to me about never wanting to sober up.

It was the year of my eighteenth birthday. My thoughts were generally and in particular almost entirely self-centered. I guess that’s what a teen-age boy is all about. First and foremost, upon turning eighteen, a guy had to worry about being drafted into the military. That probability of course doesn’t exist today. Along with wondering about an athletic scholarship to college, or being fortunate enough to sign a baseball contract, complicated the package weighing heavily on my daily mindset.

It was mid morning of a regular school day. I was sitting alone in the schools senior circle, an area reserved for only those students in their final year. Rarely was I ever alone at school. The welcomed solitude was not only appreciated, it was necessary for contemplation over what my future would hold. I was sitting there staring at nothing in particular when I felt the presence of a person standing along side.

“You look as if you’ve sobered up”, Mr.Gross said.
“Are you okay?”, he asked. I explained how I was caught up with thoughts of what the future would hold for me.
“Life can be a sobering experience at times, regardless of what you’re attempting to do,” he advised.
“Well two years ago you told me how you never wanted to sober up,” I replied.
“I said I never wanted to sober up. I didn’t say I could stay happy all the time. What I meant was life throws things at you. I found out a long time ago, I loved this school, and I especially loved baseball. Each time something crappy happened in my life, I dug in even deeper to my work at school and the joy brought to me by baseball”.
And with that Mr. Gross walked away, after shaking my hand and saying good luck, and God be with you.

A stranger taking the time to show interest in a kid’s welfare is everlasting isn’t it. Like Mr.Gross before me, I never want to sober up. A quickly dealt injury instantly removed any thoughts of an athletic scholarship, or a baseball contract. The contemplation process became simple.

Hello, Private Harvey Kalmenson. It was sobering, but not for long.


  1. God put mister gross in your path, for a lifetime of treasured wisdom… and guess what, mister gross — da' harv listened… 🙂 rog

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