Playing for the mug



by Scott Huler

Through the fog of a dimly lit bar, a two-beer buzz, and the blood rushing through my brain, my eyes focus on Fritz, as his grinning visage seems to float towards me. Fritz is short, with the furry beard, barrel chest, and belly of someone who works hard and enjoys his beer.

He bugs his eyes open wide. “I can taste the beer from that mug already,” he says, giving a satisfied shake to his head as he pantomimes lip-smacking, and at that moment I know the thing is lost.

And I am right. We are playing for the mug – the championship mug, awarded to each member of the tournament-winning team in the Raleigh Darts League – and, in a best-of-24 match, we are winning 12-4. Of the remaining seven games, we need to win only one to avoid even the everybody-in, team-on-team tie-breaker brawl that results from a tie. When the last of the doubles games finishes, and we lose – it’s 12-6 now – nobody worries. We have six singles matches to play, and we need to win only one.

I scarcely need to tell you what comes next. Once you’ve announced to the gods that you’re counting your victories before they are won, you may rely on the gods to cast you down, and cast us down they do. One by one we go to the board, one by one we lose all sense of direction and proportion, all motor control. We lose out, line up for that whole-team tiebreaker, and lose by that one final game. To be honest, we were never close in any of them. And again – as always – I go home without my trophy.

This had by then become – and has since remained – a theme for me.

We want a trophy; we all want a trophy. A trophy says, “You won! You did it! You! You have done the remarkable thing, and here is your award! For you! Because you did it!” Life is hard, and we undertake our various difficult endeavors for such recompense as they provide. Pay, usually; sometimes the approval of our friends or loved ones. Our name in the paper or on the certificate; the unknown appreciation of those we’ve assisted. But once in a while – maybe once in a lifetime, if we’re lucky – we get the trophy. The hardware. The thing.

We’ve all agreed that that’s the top of the pile. The Stanley Cup, the Lombardi Trophy, the ring. “The hardware,” the athletes say, and we agree that we want it. It’s no surprise that we make our awards out of metal. That’s what we make money out of, right? You mine, you smelt, you distill, and then at the very end of the process, when you’ve squeezed all the value into the smallest package, you get the little piece of metal: the coin. The ring.

The trophy.

And I’m oh-for-a-lifetime. With, naturally, some small print, but let me explain.

First comes Gateway Lodge – that’s the Little League team my brother played for when he was 7, and they inexplicably won the championship of whatever league they were a part of, and he got a trophy half as tall as he was. A marble base, blue shiny sides, half a million bronzed columns and filigrees, and a little actual loving cup on top. To little kids it looked like the answer to every prayer. We could trade for Hot Wheels cars, for army men, even for the almost untouchable scale model of Godzilla. But Gateway Lodge? Off the table. As years went by and Gateway Lodge fell off various shelves and tables, it ended up a box of bolts and metal and marble in the basement tool room – a sacrosanct box, mind you, that was not thrown away until my mom sold that house. I think my brother was 40.

Aware of my envy, my dad one day brought home a little trophy from somewhere – a little angel holding high a wreath, bolted to a wooden base. With someone else’s name on it. I hardly needed my brother’s defensive response to let me know: That was no trophy. That was just a thing. I think my sister ended up with it. In her doll box. And I was one more step away from that perfect trophy moment.

Fast forward about a million years, or anyway a couple dozen. I live in San Diego, and as a darts player I come in second in a tournament, taking home an actual trophy – calling me the winningest loser. A trophy, to be sure, but that satisfying, end-of-the-first-Star Wars-movie moment? Make me laugh. I still have the trophy, but it actually has the word “loser” on it. Our bar there, populated largely by Brits, joined a darts league, and despite our assurances – we are good at this! We belong in an advanced league! – were assigned to the D’s, where we demolished everybody. The runaway winners of our division, we at some point decided that the only way we could invest our inevitable award with real meaning was by going undefeated, so naturally on the last dart of the final match we did not. So again: a trophy, but it was a bit like being a second-grader winning the field day at preschool camp. If you can accept a trophy shamefacedly, we did that.

And on and on. Through the good offices of a friend who was a brilliant athlete, I spent two years learning to play left field in a City of Philadelphia employees softball league. I progressed from someone who could not be trusted to avoid getting hit on the head into someone who was chosen for multiple all-star games, and Bruce – my player-coach, who played alongside me in center – happily changed his pattern and attended the awards banquet. When it transpired that because I was not a member of the Labor and Industry department I was ineligible for the trophy, Bruce walked out – leaving his own trophy on the table. No sacrifice could have more powerfully earned my respect, though I admit that, as someone still waiting for that Trophy Moment, I would have had a hard time doing the same.

Then here to Raleigh, and more darts heartbreak. We had actually (we were called the Dixie Chickens, by the way) spent time hanging around and talking about how winning that mug would have meaning for us, would fill our trophy yearnings. We wanted to win that mug. We cared. And then – well, I’ve told you. Regarding less athletic pursuits – yes, you can get even less athletic than darts – year after year when I wrote on a newspaper staff the annual awards notifications would come out, with my name absent. Once I began writing books, things got even worse. Up for an award for a nonfiction book at the same time my wife was nominated for a book of fiction, I thrilled to learn she had won her award, a handsome silver cup that graces our shelves to this day. When I learned that the same agency had been trying hard to reach me earlier that day, with what excitement did I call – only to hear from them: “We were trying to reach June. We thought you could help.”

Yes, I could.

And you think that’s bad? Five years later, up for the same award, I got a phone message: I had won! Would I please call as soon as I could? I did – and learned that as it turned out, terribly sorry to have misspoken, but I had actually not won. There was a tie, which would require a runoff vote of the judges. You may easily guess its result.

There have been awards, mind you – are there not always? Plaques and certificates and honorifics of various sorts; I am not for a moment complaining. All right, I am complaining bitterly, but not that my life has been unfair. Healthy family, enough to eat, work I love, and plenty of friends and attention. I have it wonderful. But still: Inside me – inside most of us, I claim – we want that triumph, that trophy. We want to skate the Cup, to run around the track with the flag draped and the medal on its way. We want to thank the members of the Academy. We want that championship just for us.

When the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup and the trophy spent a day in the offices of The News & Observer, friends there invited me to come in, have my picture made, touch the Cup.

Never. Just as hockey players don’t touch the Cup until they win it, I wouldn’t touch it. It’s not my Cup – it’s not my trophy any more than that little angel with the wreath that my dad gave me. I don’t want someone else’s trophy. I want my own. So far it hasn’t found me.

Life is long; perhaps my moment will come, and some long-yearned-for trophy will make up for the mug, the book awards, the softball trophy, even Gateway Lodge. More than likely it won’t, and I’ll have to do the hard work of getting over myself: of admitting that trophies have no real meaning, that the meaning comes from work, from love, from mercy, from courage. That sounds like a worthy lesson, and I’m willing to work as hard as I can to earn it.

Maybe if I work really hard they’ll give me a trophy.