Donald L. Solem, 74, died Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017 at his home in Mill Valley. Donations can be made in his name to SupplyBank.org.
I was chatting up Dick Spotswood at some cocktail reception for some ballot measure in the fall of 1997. I had no idea who Dick Spotswood was, but he was next to me in line for a drink and we started talking about the Giants, a subject I considered myself more well-versed than almost anyone, living or dead, in San Francisco.
Dick nodded at the right times as I ran down my case for why the Giants, who had just finished first in the NL West, would be eventual World Series champions that year thanks mostly to the unheralded bat and glove of Bill Mueller. “I kind of think he’s money in the bank,” I said.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, it was more a paw or a claw. A big bear hand. I turned around and it was my new boss, my first boss — first boss at a real job anyway. “Mr. Pridgen, this is Mr. Spotswood,” he said. “Mr. Spotswood, Mr. Pridgen has been with us for only a week or so. Has it been that long? In that time he has said the words ‘kind of’ more than anyone who has ever worked with me. More than anyone I’ve ever known. Apparently, he can’t make up his mind.”
Then he paused.
“I guess he’s a ‘kind of’ kinda guy.”
Then he laughed. Oh how he laughed. Then Dick Spotswood laughed. Then Gavin Newsom and Willie Brown came over and laughed. Then Nancy Pelosi and her daughters joined in and started laughing too. Then Frank Jordan and Mark Leno and Barbara Boxer and for whatever reason Mark Ibanez and Ronnie Lott and Larry Baer and Peter Magowan and Ed Moose and all of the Gettys, even the ones you’ve never heard of. They all laughed. Everyone laughed. The roof of the restaurant shook from the laughing.
That was Don Solem.
I’m not sure how I feel about the passing of Don Solem. Unfinished may be the word. Or, to humor Don one more time, “kind of unfinished.” Unfinished was another word he used to describe me. I was a mercy hire, a favor. Don did a lot of favors. Infinite favors. I graduated from the University of Oregon with a GPA that reflected what a kinda kind of guy I was. But Don took me on as a courtesy to the guy who ran the law firm my dad worked for. I’m sure in the pantheon of favors, I ranked pretty low, a kind of (see!) nothing ventured, nothing gained zero sum of a guy, I was. I was hired as an administrative assistant, a title I took seriously enough to, yep, hand out my business card with it stamped right on there to the first 500 lucky Marina girls I met. None of them bit.
But for a kinda kind of guy, I was, how should we put it…plucky? Naive? Effin stupid? I dunno. It was the kind of (annoying, right?) thing where I stayed employed because people there liked me. How did I know this? Don pulled me into his office three months after I started and said, “We’re keeping you on because people like you, not because of what you can do, or more accurately what you can’t do — which is a lot from what I hear.”
But he went on to say, “Don’t worry about that, that’s not a bad thing. If people like you you’ll go a lot further than if people don’t like you. So just remember, don’t be an asshole. You’re not talented enough.”
Yes, that’s what really happened. I know this because I went back to my desk and wrote it down along with dozens of other things he said. Once he told me Willie Brown was “the hardest working man who never truly believed in hard work.” Jerry Brown was “as honest as a man who needs to lie for a living could ever be. Great taste in singers too.” Gavin Newsom, “You might like him. No. You wouldn’t. He’s got polish and pizazz. With something else too. And you’ve got…all your teeth I assume.”
I would go on scavenger hunts for Don. Henry Hill-in-his youth-type errands. To Chinatown to find him, “the perfect tie for tonight” (<- no other direction.) I organized his Giants season ticket holder soiree, “Figure out what they all want to eat and then give them something healthy too.” To Tadich to see if I could find “Herb Caen’s ghost — something out of a bottle of vermouth.”
I did filing (poorly). I answered phone calls (poorly). I rubber cemented articles to pieces of copy paper (poorly). Once in awhile I was invited into his office to riff on the Giants’ middle relievers and imitate the tics of a full Jeff Kent at-bat in front of someone whose name I should have recognized (often, unbeknownst to me till after they left, they were from the front office or the ownership group). For the effort, he gave me tickets to games. I remember on Fridays, envelopes with his chicken scratch on them ended up on my desk. “Enjoy these with someone you plan on staying at her folks for Thanksgiving” meaning those were the good seats not to be wasted on my friends who would come up to the office on Kearny once in awhile or meet up at an event and drink off his tab.
“Oh, you’re ‘kinda’ friends with Mr. Pridgen?” he would ask one if he ever corralled them. “And what is it you ‘kinda’ do?”
I wrote some kind of (last time) manifesto for my final self-assessment, a hallmark of the Solem & Associates annual review process. Don was used to seeing them come and go, the young ones especially. My lot in life I said was to move to LA and become a writer. He supported that. He also supported me when I tucked tail and moved back up and became a vociferous recommender, my ace in the hole. He contributed mightily to my modest career as a newspaperman and at least once a year would send me an email, “I’m expecting your book. You need to write more. If you’re not writing it would be kind of too bad.” That along with an invite to a game.
My own father died three years ago this month of lung cancer. When I heard Don was in the midst of his own bout with the same disease, it was nearly too late. I did not reach out. I should have, with conviction. But I did not.
Don has always been the guy I aspire to be. I even stole one of his signature moves — having celebrities autograph baseballs. I remember he came back to the office one morning with author Frank McCourt’s autograph on a Rawlings rawhide and he looked like he was five years old with a brand-new slingshot. Years later, I attended a book signing with comedian/actor David Cross and had him sign a baseball. Cross looked concerned. “Really man? Fucking really? A baseball?” he deadpanned. Then he reached out his hand and shook mine. “Seriously man, this is the fucking coolest thing anyone’s ever asked me to sign, including boobs man. Especially including boobs.”
I wanted to tell him about Don, my first and only mentor who I also called friend. But instead I just nodded and thought what I think often, I hope Don is out there somewhere, proud of me, and not just kind of.