Thursday, May 13, 2010

Small Time in a Big Time World -- Questions ... questions ... questions ...

I have a ton of silly little questions and observations that keep me up half the night, pondering the answers.

For example, why – in professional baseball – do the managers and coaches wear uniforms? Have you seen some of them? They look like perfect candidates for loose-fitting running suits. I don’t mind the hat. There should absolutely be some brand identification in the dugout.

The other sports make much more sense. You don’t see Bill Belichick prowling the sidelines in shoulder pads and a helmet (though someone has to dress him up better than that hoodie he wears all the time). Phil Jackson may have looked splendid in his Knicks uniform back in The Day, but he doesn’t wear gold shorts and gold tank top when he coaches. How do you suppose Scotty Bowman would have looked in hockey shorts?

Why is baseball different? Why was a guy like Don Zimmer forced to wear a double-knit pullover Red Sox jersey that made him look as if he had a beach ball stuffed under it? Why the eternal consternation over the fact that Terry Francona of the Red Sox wears a fleece top with a Red Sox logo on it?

Why do we insist on humiliating these poor men? Give them a collection of team-logo running suits and a baseball cap, and restore them their dignity.

And speaking of baseball, how many fans are aware that both home and visiting teams get a post-game spread? While the rest of us are fighting traffic to get out of the parking lot and go home, your favorite ballplayers are enjoying a fine repast of fried chicken and French fries, or some other gastronomical hodgepodge that must really settle well at 11 o’clock at night.

I cannot really figure out why. It isn’t as if these guys run around a lot. Baseball is a game that involves large amounts of inertia and brief – albeit intense – spurts of action. I suppose you can work up an appetite standing around in right field for nine innings. But I’m here to tell you that fans who have to fight traffic, park a half mile from the stadium, walk to the venue, and then push and shove their way to their seats probably work up a bigger one.

But they don’t get a free meal. Instead, they’re forced to pay over inflated prices for warmed-over food and watered-down beer. They’ve paid for tickets and paid to park, and now they have to pay extortion prices to eat.

Meanwhile, the guy who makes $10 million a year – who could probably afford have real food delivered to him in his hotel room – gets a catered goulash of sausage and peppers (or something approximating it) after every game.

I just don’t understand.

Switching over to the media (after all, that’s what this is all about), I don’t want to sound as if I’m complaining, but why do sports teams feel obligated to feed us? What is the point?

Go to a 1 o’clock Patriots game on a Sunday, and here’s what you get: a brunch with New England clam chowder, bacon, eggs, sausages, waffles, and – just in case that’s not enough – chicken and salmon. Oh, and don’t forget dessert.

Not only is all this free, the Patriots – God bless ’em – don’t even put a basket at the end of the food line so we can tip the caterers. The first time I encountered this, I was astonished. It’s de rigueur everywhere else. But when I asked the caterer where the basket was, she looked as me as if I were speaking Swahili.

You’d think that would last the entire day, especially since sausages, no matter who cooks them and how well they’re prepared, tend to lie like lead if all you’re doing is sitting in a chair watching a football game.

And that is basically what we do. Sure, we take notes. Some of us take copious notes and some of us simply stare at the field and try to observe press box protocol. And – of course – you have your wags who have to comment on everything as if they’re Don Rickles and we’re the captive audience.

But that doesn’t change the fact that we’re chained to the chair, with a refrigerator full of Pepsi and water nearby just in case what we’ve eaten for brunch somehow didn’t satisfy us.

At halftime, they serve hot dogs, pretzels, pop corn and cookies.

Even if you’ve overeaten at brunch (and I’ve done my share of that), it’s unlikely that you’re going to have the discipline to stay away from the halftime spread – though I’ve managed on a lot of these occasions to use halftime as an opportunity to get a head start on some of the writing I need to do after the game. More often than not, I skip the hot dogs (though if I go down into the media dining area, I have a severe weakness for the pretzels).

If you’ve gone 2-for-2 in the chow department, and you don’t feel as if you’ve just had an anchor dropped in your stomach, I think there is something seriously wrong with you. But some journalists – perhaps because they don’t have to part with a nickel – feel as if it’s not only their divine right, but divine obligation, to pluck every morsel of food off the smorgasbord.

And there is definitely more to come. After the game – after you’ve experienced both the interview room and group grope, you can come back upstairs to the media dining room and sample another fine variety of pizza. There are boxes and boxes of it … more food … more soda with which to wash it down … more cookies … another anchor in the belly.

And, unless you have a cast-iron stomach, you end up with a horrific case of heartburn as you drive home.

I’ve had the experience a few times.

Again, I’m not complaining. I’ve been around a few organizations in my time, and they don’t come any classier than the Patriots. For all the hassle involved going down to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough (I have to leave my house by 9 a.m. for a 1 p.m. game – just to beat the traffic), once you’re there, the organization does everything it can to make it as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.

I just can’t figure out why teams feel they need to feed us. Perhaps, long ago, teams felt that since baseball writers had to work through what would normally be considered supper hour, they’d be a little less cranky if they had a meal in them. Since there weren’t night games in the early part of the 20th century, games would start at three or four in the afternoon to accommodate day workers who, otherwise, couldn’t go.

Games take roughly three hours, which brings us to about seven at night. Then, reporters had to write their stories and send them to their papers either by wire (no fax or email in those days) or by dictating them to the copy desk (I had to take quite a bit of dictation when I was at UPI, and also had to dictate; I got good enough at it that, by the time I got out of college, I could dictate off my notes).

You have to figure that whole process took another couple of hours, meaning you wouldn’t get out of the park until nine at night. How does one eat through all this?

This could be why teams, in the early days, felt a need to feed the writers. It might be their only shot at eating a good meal all day. And … it just might make the writers think a little more kindly on their teams.

But that was then. Things are a lot different now. The Red Sox put out quite a nice spread … but they charge reporters $10 to eat it. That’s still a bargain, when you consider it would cost twice that much to eat the same amount of food at one of their concession stands.

Part of me feels that if I were a general manager looking to cut costs, I’d start with all this free food given to the media. But the reporter in me feels grateful to get it (even the $10 meal at Fenway). For most of us, getting to the park/stadium is a project … an ordeal that would only be complicated further by having to cook and eat a meal before we left.

But on the other hand, most of us – if not given the freebie at the park – would probably stop somewhere for a bite, and pay gladly for it. So why not do what the Red Sox do? I really believe the days of the gravy train should have ended long ago. I’m only a little guy in all this, but even I sometimes feel compromised by the idea of free food – and some of it pretty good – lavished upon me.

It took me quite a while to grow up to this point of view. I certainly didn’t have it in college, when I’d actually find an excuse to go to Red Sox games because I knew I’d get a meal out of it.

To backtrack, I worked full-time for UPI as a Northeastern co-op student, and as a stringer while my class division was in school. Gil Peters and Al Bruce (the two regional sports editors while I was interning) always procured a season’s press pass for me once I established myself over there, which meant that any time I wanted, I could walk over to the park (Northeastern was on one side of the Fenway) while the ballpark was on the other), and watch a game.

While actually in school, I was always scrounging around for money. I can recall days when I had to borrow the quarter it took to get from the school to the subway terminal at Wonderland in Revere, where my father would dutifully pick me up.

On this kind of a budget, eating was not an option. But during baseball season, where I didn’t have to spend the quarter to get anywhere, I’d mosey on over to Fenway, eat a good meal, watch the game, and run quotes for Al or Gil. Once in a while, I even did a story.

I never expected to get paid for this (and there was a short time when the union tried to fight it, but it never went anywhere). I was just happy to be a part of it – and to put a few more notches in my journalistic belt. Not to mention eat!

I got so used to this that at Christmas one year, the Bruins gave us all free turkeys and I just reacted as if it were expected.

I don’t know why I was even at the Boston Garden the day the Bruins gave out the turkeys, but I was … and Herb Ralby, their media guy, gave me a ticket and said “go pick up your turkey.”

Understand, I was about 20 at this point, and with a curious mixture of growing arrogance over my incredible fortune of being big-time at such a tender age; and the same naiveté that every kid has at that age. It was great. I loved feeling important enough to be given free food at Fenway … and pewter trays and tree ornaments by the Red Sox at Christmas and free turkeys by the Bruins.

Remember, I was the class also-ran in high school … never quite good enough to make the big-time. I got hooted on by plenty of athletes who lorded their superiority over me. And here I was, the recipient of all this graft by the Red Sox and Bruins. I just couldn’t get over it.

I’m sorry to say that anything anyone gave me, I gladly accepted without questioning whether it was ethical. Hey, I didn’t ask for it. The Bruins made no distinction between established writer and copy boy/gopher. And I wasn’t about to explain it to them.

But I wasn’t very smart about it. I walked back to our office on Beacon Hill, and stepped off the elevator into the newsroom carrying a great, big turkey in my arms like a football. The editor wanted to know where I got it, and instead of making something up, I told him the Bruins had given it to me.

He had a look of severe gravitas on his face as he pondered this conundrum. The 20-year-old copy boy was walking around the office with a free turkey!!

He let me keep it … but told me “never again.” He sat me down and explained ethics and how the importance of having them in this profession. It was really quite heartfelt. But me being me, I couldn’t let it go at that. I told him that he should see all the reporters swilling down free booze after Red Sox games (in those days, the team had a fully stocked bar in the press room, and you could drink until the wee hours of the morning, again, without parting with a dime).

He didn’t care. And besides, he said, I was just a kid. My main function with UPI, aside from whatever stories I could talk myself into doing, was opening mail, filing copy, getting coffee and lunches, and other mundane activities.

I was reminded of my humble station often. Once, just around the time I started feeling pretty damn important about myself, Stan Berens yelled out, “Steve, come here QUICK.”

I ran over to where he was, thinking that they needed me to go out and cover something heeeeee-uge.

Instead, he handed me a plunger.

“The toilet in the ladies’ room is plugged up. Go unplug it.”

I may have gone to Red Sox games and rubbed elbows with Carlton Fisk, but the next day I was changing the ink in the teletype machines -- an absolute nasty job because, unlike typewriter ink, teletype ink is more heavily concentrated, and, thus, stays on your hands for about a week. We had a technician named Eddie Viles – good guy – who had some foul-smelling hand cleaner in his work room, and it was the only stuff that got the teletype ink off your fingers. You’d rub this goo on your hands, and it would just turn DARK BLUE as it stripped the ink – and probably some skin too – off your hands and fingers.

And no matter how many times you washed your hands, the smell just lingered. And it wasn’t very pleasant.

You know, somewhere deep in the bowels of my subconscious, I can STILL smell it.

I used to piss off Eddie Viles because I wouldn’t squeeze the tube of goo from the bottom. He used to come into his work room the next day, and come out screaming at me, “squeeze the tube from the BOTTOM.”

These were the episodes that conspired to keep me humble while I was accepting every handout any organization was willing to give me.

There are other questions and observations. Who decided that quotes from athletes added anything to a game story? If Curt Schilling has a bad outing on the mound, does it really matter to anyone why? Does it matter that he didn’t have his “command?” Or that he couldn’t spot his fastball? Couldn’t it just be that the other guys hit the ball?

This isn’t always the case, of course, but many athletes tend to muddle the process instead of illuminating it.

Win or lose, the Patriots herd us into an amphitheater-type room (the same room players use to watch films during the week) for the all-important “post-game press conference.” Bill Belichick stands at the podium, and all I can think of is Bullwinkle J. Moose and the old “Mr. Know-it-all” bit he did.

The only difference is that Bullwinkle J. was more forthcoming … even with the nonsense he came out with. Belichick wouldn’t tell you if you were on fire. His favorite expression is “it is what it is,” and he uses it for everything you could possibly think of. It is what it is.

This leads – naturally – to some considerable extrapolation among the media types who are just a bit tired of Belichick’s non-answers and evasiveness over the most trivial matters. This may be a little hard for people who view Belichick as a dour, surly man -- who puts Richard Nixon to shame when it comes to being suspicious and secretive -- to believe, but one of his best friends is Jon Bon Jovi.

Now, picture it. Bill and Jon are sitting by the pool, and Bon Jovi offers Belichick some weed, and asks him how he likes it.

Long pause …

“It is what it is.”

It’s also come to light that Belichick is, shall we say, somewhat of a player. And I only have one question: HOW????

However, his press conferences are useless. He either bogs you down with such shop talk and jargon that your eyes start to glaze over, or he flat-out refuses to answer the simplest questions. Last January, after the Patriots lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs, Belichick set some kind of modern record for terse, testy one-word answers.

Once in a great while, someone clever enough to steer the conversation will get him to show his more human side, and he’ll discuss one of the game’s great pioneers. And not only is it refreshing, but he takes down the veneer long enough to reveal a true passion for the game.

Shortly before the Patriots went to Jacksonville in 2005 for the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles (I don’t know what Roman Numeral it is; I refuse to buy into the NFL’s misguided sense of importance by referring to games in such an august manner), the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan – who I consider the pre-eminent columnist in the area – got him to talk about Paul Brown, one of the true football pioneers. Belichick spent the next 20 minutes outlining Brown’s importance to the game, and it was breathtaking.

Give him credit, he plays the game and manages to stay one or two steps ahead of us. A guy from the Hartford Courant, the late Alan Greenberg, used to drive him nuts. He’d ask questions designed to make him pause and actually have to think before answering. And Belichick hated that.

Once in a while, you’ll find an athlete who can give you a cogent analysis of a game, and in such cases, his or her quotes can be useful in a story. Johnny Damon was always good for a quote, not because of anything intelligent he said, but because he was so honest. He wasn’t afraid to say the team stunk if it stunk.

Another good one is Rodney Harrison of the Patriots, who always manages to find something interesting to say on a subject.

More often, however, athletes are walking, talking cliché machines. Some of them do it with a smile (Tom Brady), some with more of a sense of gravitas (Tedy Bruschi) and some so arrogantly that you can’t help but wonder how he fits his head through the door (Curt Schilling). If you’ve ever seen “Bull Durham,” and you remember the part where Crash teaches Nuke how to address the media, that’s generally how it is.

This can be frustrating. You spend a half hour, or more, waiting for the jock you’ve been assigned to finish his shower, and he stands there and mumbles clichés … and barely audibly too.

This is one more reason why being small-time in a big-time world has its advantages. If I don’t want to hang around and wait an hour for Tom Brady after a game, I don’t. I can write about something else. An NFL game is like a play. There are usually so many angles you don’t always know where to begin.

Another thing about this marriage between game stories and quotes is that you’re almost forced to root against guys to have good games because you don’t want the hassle of trying to talk to them afterward.

I always like it better when Brady has a big game because he makes himself available eventually. If Corey Dillon, when he played for the Pats, ran for 150 yards and scored three touchdowns, good luck trying to get him on deadline (thought believe it or not, Randy Moss will take the podium and, very often, he’s pretty good).

When Jim Rice, now a Hall of Fame bon vivant who is all over the Red Sox post-game telecasts, played for the Sox, getting him to talk was like pulling teeth. Eddie Murray of the Baltimore Orioles couldn’t stand us, and made that known as often as he could.

The feeling was mutual a lot of the time. I can remember sitting at Fenway once with one of UPI’s national guys, who worked out of New York … Mike Tully. He called his office in the middle of the game to check on the Yankees game.

“How are the scum doing,” he asked.

If I could get away with writing game stories without quotes in them I would. As bad as it is on the pro scene, it’s worse in high school games … not because the kids aren’t cooperative, but because most of them are so self-conscious that they’re afraid to say anything.

Yet editors love them. They seem to feel that stories without quotes somehow lack credibility. To me, if I cannot tell you what happened in the Red Sox game last night without a perfunctory quote from Curt Schilling, I’m in the wrong business.

I pick on Schilling because, toward the end of his career, he saved his best stuff for his blog. So in a sense, we were competing against him. I’d have been all for boycotting his interviews so that when he’s strutted into the media room, he was looking at four walls.

But that’s just me.

Writing has changed since I broke into the business. In 1972, television stations did not broadcast every Red Sox game (though UHF channels covered the Celtics and Bruins like a blanket). Back then, just because fans couldn’t see them on TV every night, you almost had to stick to the game as much as you could.

Now, not only are games broadcast, but they’re rebroadcast. There are extensive post-game shows where the stars are interviewed, and those interviews are shown over and over again to the point where everyone’s heard them by the next morning.

So what relevance do they have by the next day? None. It is truly a case of yesterday’s news.

I never read game stories, because I already know how the game came out, and I already know what Curt Schilling, or Terry Francona, had to say. I’d rather read the sidebars (which do require a quote or two because they’re about things that go beyond the actual game), and the notes columns, where a lot of information is conveyed as succinctly as possible. Game stories – even in a morning newspaper – are a waste of space and bandwidth.

For the most part, though, I think barging into the team locker room is a waste of time. I also think that most of the distrust that occurs between the media and athletes stems from reporters walking around and catching athletes in vulnerable moments. I always ask my friends, when they grouse about asshole athletes, how they’d like it if some guy stuck a microphone in their faces when they were most vulnerable (such as with their clothes half on and off, immediately after an intense game). Would they be so composed that they’d say the right thing 100 percent of the time?

I guarantee you, some of the dumbest things athletes have said … and some of the things that have followed them around for their entire careers (such as Roger Clemens’ complaint about having to carry his own luggage) … come out of the mouths of 20-something kids who aren’t mature enough to comprehend their own fame.

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