Ron LaPolice will be missed
At the place where Ron LaPolice last held forth at the OMBAC World Championship Over-The-Line Tournament, there will be a set of his shoes bronzed and fittingly set a stride apart for this year's event.
The display will honor an OTL original. LaPolice's footsteps are all over this San Diego blend of athletic pastime and beach culture, which enters its 54th year tomorrow with the start of two weekends of play at Fiesta Island.
LaPolice, who died April 1 at age 75, helped put the sport's rules in writing, contributed to launching the tournament and even set an event record by playing for 45 straight years. Then, too, he's immortalized by the fact the courts are measured in what are called “Ron LaPolice steps.”
Rather than using a tape measure or the like, OTL founders opted to avoid arguments about dimensions on the sand by having one of their own walk the boundaries. It was a responsibility that went to LaPolice, who stepped into action with ease.
“He was just like he always was,” said Mike Curren, another tourney founder. “He showed complete indifference. He was perfect for the job.”
In recent years, printed rules indicated a distance of 20 “Ron LaPolice steps” both from the plate to the line and from one sideline to the other. In a return to the original form this year, a width of 22 steps is being restored.
“If there was any complaint about the measure of the courts, Ronnie'd walk it off,” Curren said. “Lo and behold, it was always right on.”
About the only change in LaPolice's disposition came when suggestions were offered to OTL organizers about rule changes.
“That's when he became less indifferent to the point of being emphatic,” Curren said. “He'd probably throw in some (colorful) words, too.”
On April 1, Curren was at home when he heard sirens sounding in South Mission Beach, where LaPolice also lived. An hour later, a friend called to say the sirens were from an ambulance for LaPolice, who was stricken with a fatal heart attack.
“Of course,” Curren noted, “it was a shock.”
While Curren grew up in Mission Beach, LaPolice was from east of Interstate 5, or Highway 101, as it was known in their youth. According to family lore, LaPolice regularly ventured from his home in Normal Heights to the beach from the time he was 10 years old.
Beach athletes at the time often played traditional six-man volleyball. While waiting for courts, they engaged in a modified form of softball with no base running, known as Over-The-Line, which would develop its own following.
Curren and LaPolice each entered military service, attended San Diego State and joined forces in writing the OTL rules. They helped start the tournament that has grown into today's spectacle with 1,200 teams competing.
The two also kept playing and playing. Approaching the 25th straight year in the tourney, Curren brought the streaks to LaPolice's attention.
“I said to him, 'You know, keeping this streak going could be a problem. So I'm not playing this year,' ” said Curren, 77, who works as a surveyor. “Ronnie just kept playing.”
LaPolice continued his streak until he was sidelined in the late 1990s following a knee replacement. After that, he kept active in running the tournament, stationed at the south end of the scoreboard to field inquiries during play.
The player known as “Fox” also long had the role of “set-up captain” for the tourney site. This job, too, well suited LaPolice, who worked as an electrician and handyman.
“He was the one who would show up with the pole-hole digger and put everything up,” said Rudy Jarabak, the current set-up captain. “Guys would come here and say, 'How come the bracket board isn't up yet? Oh, Fox isn't here yet.' Of course, it wasn't like they would help.”
When LaPolice was unavailable for set-up in 1989, he yielded the task to Jarabak on a trial basis. LaPolice then ordained Jarabak as the successor the next year by presenting a new cap that proclaims the job title.
Jarabak still has the cap, albeit tattered and soiled, preferring it to any new one offered.
“You might give me a cap,” Jarabak said. “But I earned this one from Fox.”
In his own tribute to LaPolice, Jarabak built a “Fox Trot,” or wooden wheel with three shoes attached that rotate with the same spacing as a “Ron LaPolice step.”
Tourney organizers met this summer to do bracketing at LaPolice's house, as they had often done over the years, through the invitation of LaPolice's widow, Sandy Wiebe.
Curren takes the perspective that perhaps he will see LaPolice again sometime, possibly within the realm of horse racing, another avocation they shared.
“Maybe I'll run into him at the track,” Curren said. “At least I'll certainly think about him.”
So, too, will many others remember Ron LaPolice, always stepping forward for OTL.