Fueling My Fire

 

An important part of any success I’ve had in my career is the underlying competitive nature of my personality.  I

Peter Wilt reacts to receiving Matt Pickens 2006 US Open Cup championship medal.

suppose to a certain extent, that’s a prerequisite for anyone in leadership positions, but for me, it is an undercurrent of everything I do.  It may not be readily apparent, but losing games or having business setbacks pains me to no end.

And my greatest joy is winning on or off the field whether it is a team I work for or simply one I have chosen to support.  That nature inspires me to work harder, longer and smarter to make sure that my team is successful.

Arnold Zack, a Massachusetts attorney and friend of the late US Senator Paul Tsongas once told him:

“No one on his DEATHBED ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time on my business.’”

I think about that quote often, because if its true, I will likely have some serious regrets in my final days.  My adult life has revolved around my job at the expense of my personal life.  For almost all of the last 19 years, I’ve commuted from my wife and home base in Wisconsin to follow my professional dreams in Chicago, then Los Angeles, Minnesota and Chicago again before my recent return to Milwaukee.  I’m aware of the trade offs I’m making and asking others I care for to make.  As a result, I try to make my work as enjoyable as possible.  Most of my best friends and the people I spend the most time with are those I’ve met through work.

Competitiveness was instilled in me at a young age by my father and my brother Tim and developed by successes and failures throughout the rest of my life.  It is the single characteristic that motivates me every day.

One of my earliest memories was serving as William Tell’s son with a paper cup on my head as my father and brother did their best to remove it with a Frisbee from 15 paces.  It may sound borderline abusive, but I was a willing (as willing as a four year old can be) participant and excited to be able to take part in this competition (my mother wasn’t quite as excited!).

marching-band

The participant portion of my competitiveness centered around Tim, who was my elder by four years.  He challenged me daily in every conceivable activity indoors and out.  Floor hockey in the garage, paper football in the kitchen, ping pong and darts in the basement, basketball in the driveway and shuffle board and Wiffle ball (fast and slow pitch versions) in the back yard consumed a bulk of the time we should’ve been studying.  Neighborhood baseball, basketball, football and pond hockey games were a daily activity and organized teams in Little League, St. Pat’s and Montini grade schools and later Marian Central High School and the local 16-inch beer belly softball league formalized the competition.

I was a lousy athlete, but I worked harder and certainly longer than most in order to gain an edge.  I would also spend time learning sports trivia and unusual games or activities that others wouldn’t care to master such as table hockey, chess and juggling. And even today, I prefer playing bocce to golf, because i have a better chance of winning.

The spectator side of my competitive nature was fostered by my dad.  He grew up in Chicago’s south side Gresham neighborhood near 83rd and Racine where he attended St. Sabina’s grade school and cheered on the White Sox, Blackhawks and old Chicago Cardinals.  On July 7, 1965, when I was five years old, my dad took my brother and me to my first White Sox game.  It was a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians - we always went to doubleheaders, because it was a better value.  The Indians swept the Sox that day with Gary Bell besting Gary Peters in the first game.  I’ve been hooked on the Sox and sports in general ever since.  In kindergarten, I began reading the Chicago Tribune sports section daily for White Sox (and later Blackhawks) updates.  Reading the Trib every day led to a serious interest in sports journalism, which I studied and worked in (also here for four years) while attending Marquette University.

Like most Americans, my competitive nature eventually manifested itself in wagering.  Mine probably started a little earlier and a little more intense than most, however.  I have gambled in many forms over the years, but the motivation has rarely been about the money.  It’s ALWAYS about needing to win.  As a seven-year-old, I would be glued to WGN-TV to listen to Jack Drees call the races for the Jewel Food Store sponsored “Let’s Go to the Races” and see if our scratch off cards would be winners.

As a ten-year-old fifth grader at Montini Catholic Grade School in McHenry, Illinois, I bought into the mega hype of the self-proclaimed “Fight of the Century” between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier.  I decided to bet my friend Tommy Carey fifty cents that Smokin’ Joe would hold onto his heavyweight crown against the undefeated Ali.  Other classmates got wind of the wager and wanted in.  I ended up serving as Montini’s junior bookie and banker for the bout by placing and tracking at least a couple dozen bets for classmates, none more than a dollar.

I had lottery tickets (thank you Mom!) for the very first Illinois Lottery drawing on August 8, 1974.  The losing tickets are still posted in my childhood bedroom.  I’m now one of those people that will only buy lottery tickets if the prize is over $100 million…..because $50 million isn’t enough?!?!

In college, i was taken for $20 on the streets of Madison, Wisconsin by a three card monte hustler and then I put down ANOTHER $20.  I “knew” I couldn’t win, but that competitive bug made me want to try again.  I have an obsessive personality and have been conscious of the potential for it to lead to problems with gambling.  Fortunately, i believe that participation in fantasy sports leagues and competing through my own team have provided the competitive outlets I needed to avoid a gambling problem.

fantasy-baseball

Soon after college I met the inventor of Rotisserie League Baseball (and by extension, inventor of all fantasy sports games) Daniel Okrent at a book signing at Schwartz’ Book Shop in downtown Milwaukee.  I purchased and had Okrent sign his revolutionary 1984 book and used it to create one of the world’s first fantasy sports leagues in the Spring of 1984.  As an homage to Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson and all the other black baseball players who played prior to MLB’s color barrier being lifted in 1947, we called our league “The Old Negro League”.  The creation of our fantasy baseball league was intended to keep a group of college buddies in contact by holding a draft in a different city every year where we would attend a baseball game, hang out, smoke cigars, drink beer and conduct our draft.

The idea was to keep us close and friendly.  Early on, our competitive instincts ocassionally took over and we had to deal with one team trading pitcher Dwight Goodenfor a Zenith color television set and other rule-evading maneuvers.  The Old Negro League has since morphed into a fantasy football league, but it continues to fuel my competitive spirit.  I’ve also participated and won titles in other fantasy leagues and office pools including soccer, basketball and even a celebrity ghoul pool.  I must admit that a few of the 25 champagne bottles in my “championship collection” are from these fantasy leagues, which may seem to trivialize the collection, but celebrating these fantasy league championships gave me similar emotions as celebrations for championships in MLS, NPSL and the A-League.

Champagne Dreams. Some of the 25 empty Champagne bottles I've collected from various celebrations over the last 20 years.

Champagne Dreams. Some of the 25 empty Champagne bottles I've collected from various celebrations over the last 20 years.

There is also a serious downside of being so competitive.  When you live and die with your team’s game results, the losing can really hurt emotionally.  I tend to go up and down emotionally anyway and my 1998 emotional ride was almost constantly upwards.  So I was set up for quite a fall the following year.  As great as 1998 was for me with the winning of the double in the Fire’s 1998 inaugural season,1999 was a depressing year with three epic failures.  In order, we lost in frustrating manner in:

1) The US Open Cup at Rochester, 1-0 on a baseball field in an ugly third round game that culminated with Lubos Kubik coming to blows with the Rhinos Scott Schweitzer.  It was my first real taste of losing with the Fire and I still remember the bitter taste post-game as I literally pouted about the loss.

2) The CONCACAF Champions Cup tournament at the Silver Bowl in Las Vegas.  The Chicago Fire tied for third place in the tournament when we fell to Alajuelense of Costa Rica 5-4 in penalty kicks.  I recall kneeling behind the goal watching Lubos Kubik going for his decisive kick.  As he strode up to the ball, I crossed my fingers, closed my eyes, then opened them to see that our most composed player had blasted the ball over the crossbar and ended our hopes for a regional title.  CONCACAF’s Ted Howard tried giving me a package of 4th place medals as the organizers had decided not to play a 3rd place game (He had given the 3rd place medals to DC United, the other semi-final losers).  I told Ted in no uncertain terms that we would not accept those medals and insisted that he send us 3rd place medals instead.  It took more than four months, but we finally received the medals we earned.

3) The Fire’s 1999 season came crashing down in excrutiating fashion at the Cotton Bowl in game three of the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Dallas Burn.  Kubik’s two early game assists gave the Fire a 2-0 lead in the fifth minute and I was certain we would be moving one step closer to our second MLS Cup Final in two seasons.  Despite controlling possession for 59% of the game, the Burn doubled our nine shot output and roared back with three second half goals to take our spot in the Conference Finals.  I was stunned for the third time that summer and began to realize how special 1998 really was.

Another sign of my competitiveness is my need to pick sides in any sporting event I watch.  While Fulham is my Barclays Premier league side, I can tell you who I would root for in any match up in the League.  Last year I created a matrix that showed my supporting interest for each of the 190 (if my math is correct) possible match ups.  The reasons for choosing a preference range from detesting a team (Chelsea) to helping Fulham avoid relegation (West Bromwich, Everton) to having friends affiliated with a club (Arsenal).  That rooting interest always makes the match more enjoyable for me even if “my” club ends up on the short side.

While I get enjoyment from fantasy leagues, my supported teams, and “neutral” games (that I make biased in my own mind), my ultimate competitive satisfaction is when the team I work for achieves success either on or off the field.  I believe my competitive nature has helped me fight harder than most to achieve the success my teams have earned over the years.  I remember saying to Bob Bradley and my executive assistant Allison Holmstrom (now Gregory) at the Chicago Fire’s expansion draft atop the John Hancock Tower in 1997, “This is just like my fantasy baseball draft…without the cigars.”

It is my goal to win games and championships on the field and to set attendance and sponsorship records off the field.  I want to appeal to my team’s fans’ competitive instincts and give them the same passion for victory that I have.

Just as I have ways to achieve success beyond the outcome of the game, fans can also “win” - even when their team doesn’t - by allowing fans to compete via an in-stadium promotion.  One idea I had for this was displaying a Tic Tac Toe board on the video boards at the Milwaukee Wave’s indoor soccer games.  A Wave logo goes in the middle square at the beginning of the game and each goal that is scored results in a Wave or visitor logo being placed in a square.  If three straight Wave logos result from the goals, then all fan tickets will be good for a mutually agreed sponsor offer.  Like the Milwaukee Brewers sausage races, the plethora of video races and the free food for scoring 100 points in basketball game promotions, I believe Tic Tac Toe will appeal to fans competitive spirit.  The size of the prize isn’t important, but the competition is.

During my time with the Chicago Fire, I was known to make a few friendly wagers with staff members that offered them a sizable prize ($1,000 cash, doubled commissions for a week, trip to Florida for Fire pre-season, etc.) if they were victorious (which they never were).  On the flip side, if I won, the staff member had to dress up in a pre-determined costume and perform an agreed in advance task.  For all the entertainment they provided, I would like to thank my colleagues at the Fire who:

And the lucky fellow who did a dandy Tom Dreesen impression came back for more this year and bet me a wheel of cheese on the regular season placement of Real Salt Lake versus Seattle Sounders FC.  I placed my faith in Seattle and am expecting a wheel of Colby soon.  He received the last laugh on Saturday though as his RSL club became champions of MLS.

MLS Cup marked the end of Steve Pastorino’s 33 week long pick ‘em pool.  Steve selected ten games from around the world each week (mostly MLS) and a group of 15 FOS (friends of Steve) picked win, lose or draw for each.  I ended up leading the League for most of the year and held off Steve and Kebzach by a few games to earn the $84 winner’s share, which i will be donating to the Chicago Red Stars Charitable Foundation.

My competitive nature has gotten the best of me several times and unfortunately, I’ve reacted emotionally at times when things haven’t gone my way.

Former MLS Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis explains to me that life isn't always fair.

Former MLS Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis explains to me that life isn't always fair.

One time was at the 2003 MLS SuperDraft in Kansas City.  During the draft I completed a conditional trade of Kelly Gray to Columbus,  but the condition was that we include a particular 2004 SuperDraft pick to the Crew that potentially could be owed to Kansas City as well if Josh Wolff reinjured his knee during the 2003 season.  Due to the potential double jeopardy, we needed Kansas City to approve our deal.  I offered Wizards GM Curt Johnson a free 3rd round draft pick to approve the trade and a 1st round draft pick for each of the next three seasons IF Chicago didn’t deliver a pick as good or better than required if Wolff reinjured his knee (I knew we could find a qualifying pick if needed, so the three 1st round picks would never have to be delivered).  Johnson inexplicably turned the offer down and during the two timeouts allotted Chicago and Columbus, I very publicly and impetuously implored Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis to intercede and find a way to approve the trade.  My emotional rant went for naught, but was captured on film and used on the cover of Andy Mead’s Emerald City Gazette’s March, 2003 issue.

For better and worse, it’s all competition and it’s what flows through my veins and gets me up in the morning and keeps me going throughout the day.

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