I am a natural athlete.
Graced with a body like a Greek Adonis, cat-like reflexes and strength like a Mack truck, through great genetics and a work effect that is second to none, I honestly believe that I incorporate all of the good parts of the Bible on the playing field of life. I have been told, by both good friends and curious by-passers, that I have the heady ability to lead men with a clear purpose and will stop at nothing to accomplish my goals. Imagine if you will some sort of cosmic Cuisinart that can properly blend the talents of a Tony Gwynn, Joe Frazier, Pete Sampras, Chuck Liddell and Carl Edwards and cook it at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. That final baked good is what Ben Raskin eats every morning for breakfast and washes it down with a double-shot of courage, discipline, pluck and grapefruit juice. From the baseball diamond to the hardwood to the gridiron, I have bested every challenge and vanquished every challenger. Don’t believe me? I don’t either.
My career in sports is short and spotty at best. With the exception of a five year run at youth soccer, I hardly left the confines of my bedroom in Las Vegas. I had always appreciated the company of a comic book and something deep fried to the overwhelming work it takes to do two-a-days. The only real discipline I had in a sport (if it can even be called that) through the first 15 years of my life was rolling multi-sided dies in the cutthroat world of Dungeons and Dragons. I can only imagine what my mother’s kitchen smelt like with seven pre-teen boys yelling about mythological worlds with Domino’s Pizza spitting out the side of our mouths. My love affair with D&D was so all consuming that my cousin, Johan Raskin, had an intervention with me when I first entered high school. He told me in no uncertain terms that I would never touch a woman if I didn’t put down the eight-sided die and stop talking about wizards, clerics and warriors. Probably the best advice I ever received in the first two decades of my life.
Johan’s advice propelled me to try out for team sports at Bonanza High. I had been forbidden by my parents to play football because they were terrified that I would end up with a broken neck. It was one of the only things that they had a unified front against. Instead, I tried out for wrestling. Wrestling might have been the worst choice of sports for me to attempt. Unlike watching television, reading and eating, wrestling is diametrically opposed to these activities. They were focused on weight where I was committed to eating anything that wasn’t nailed down. I think the only time I picked up a hammer was to un-nail a hoagie. I lasted a whole season with the team and wrestled at 165 lbs. It was an absolutely horrible experience. The wrestling room was hidden in the basement of the gym and was a den of iniquity. The coaches were diabolic in both their approach to the game and life and the other wrestlers were sadomasochistic fiends. It was Hobbes’ state of nature played out during every practice and I definitely didn’t fit in. In a word, they scared the Hell out of me.
I lasted only my freshman year and I am still recovering from the experience. I only competed in three meets and was summarily beaten so bad that I hid in the locker room after each humiliating pin-down. The way I was punished through the match was like a matador torturing a bull before they mercifully killed them at the very end. The only real takeaway I got from wrestling is that one needs to be completely committed to any sport they attempt. I tried my best but my heart was never in it. I was always afraid of getting beaten up. Sports require being aggressive to be successful and I was way too passive to step on the mat.
That is not to say that I didn’t letter in high school. It wasn’t until my sophomore year did I discover a team sport that was a nature fit for me. It didn’t require showering after practice, running wind sprints, spending hours in the weight room or even putting down said hoagie. It was the chess team and I was a natural. I guess chess is just as much a sport as Dungeons and Dragons or competitive crossword puzzles but Bonanza High had a chess team. We had matches against all of the other school in the valley and had a pretty decent tradition. It is running track? No. But can you letter? You bet your sweet ass.
Mr. Anderson, the chemistry teacher, was the coach and he ran a tough practice. We would meet in his classroom twice a week and play chess for almost three hours. It was nothing but a series of Sicilian Defenses, Boden’s Mate, queen-side castling and unorthodox openings. I had been playing chess for the majority of my life. My father taught me and my brothers how to play and we would spend almost every evening when he got home from work at the kitchen table. In a winner-take-all tournament, my father would drink Miller Lites and shellac his sons one-by-one. His hard nose play would be the foundation I would take into Mr. Anderson’s practices and help me rise in the ranks of my peers.
All jokes aside, chess was a lot of fun. We practiced against each other for a couple of weeks before we took our team out on the road. The meets were organized with five on five with the school with the most wins taking the meet. We played every high school in the valley and usually split wins. I won as many as I lost but I really enjoyed getting to travel around the valley and see other high schools. We went in Mr. Anderson’s van, stopping at 7-11s and never having as much as a stray parent as a cheerleader at our meets. It didn’t matter because after a 12 game schedule, we ended the season with a party at a Shakey’s Pizza with the presentation of the letters. They were a large “B” with a rook embroidered into the side. Very cool. It wasn’t the sort of thing that you could justify wearing on a real letterman’s jacket—I honestly believe the wrestling team would have kicked the snot out of anyone of us for wearing a letterman’s jacket. It didn’t matter. In the end, the success to finish a chess season took the same dedication it took to finish a wrestling season.
That was the end of my sporting career in high school. I figured I should probably go out on top. Unlike other student athletes in high school, I can still play chess at a high level and not worry about blowing out my MCL. Looking back, I do regret not playing football. Not playing high school football and not joining the navy after college are my only two regrets in life. Even though I didn’t have the body or discipline to play football (that and my parent’s permission), I wished I tried out. I think there is a lot of value in sports. I didn’t really learn anything about competing, the value of practice and teamwork until I played rugby in college. I played rugby for three years at UNR and two years after graduating with the Las Vegas Blackjacks. Everything that I lacked in wrestling, I found for rugby. Besides, rugby fulfilled my beer drinking needs better than rolling around on a mat with another guy.
My friend, Fitz Whaley, would give me a hard time because I wasn’t a big sports fan growing up. It wasn’t until I discovered his fanaticism with the Denver Broncos did I start to understand the role of sports in America. I had always been a diehard San Diego Padres fan because of my grandfather but in an era before the internet and limited coverage in the local newspapers, it was difficult to sustain an interest in the Padres. Even though I am 500 miles further away from Petco, I am much more intuned with the Padres because of apps on my iPhone. Fitz was/is a John Elway maniac and he was damn near unbearable living with during the football season. I never shared his mania simply because Las Vegas never had a home team. Our teams were the sports books at the casinos. Sporting lines were the only hometown favorites. It was easier to fall into the appeal of watching MTV than following sports. It wasn’t until I got older and found story lines did I start to love watching sports. So, to Fitz: you can become a sports fan later in life. Hell, I didn’t know how to bleed my brake lines when we first met but I’ve learned a few things since we’ve last seen each other.
I am more of an athlete at 37 then I was at 17. I play golf, basketball, box and still play chess. I have definitely slowed down dramatically but that is just nature telling me that the cartilage in my knees is a mythological creature like a unicorn. The natural curiosity of following sports has never been sharper and there are some amazing story lines developing both locally and nationally. When I am behind the bar, I have a chance to hear so many different perspectives on sports. Better than that, I get to watch a lot of it with my guests. Not a half bad way to make a living. By the way, that cosmic Cuisinart baked good would not be a half bad way to start the day.
Ben Raskin backs the San Diego Padres, University of Nevada Wolf Pack and Detroit Lions. He is also strangely fascinated by Tim Tebow. He bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin.