Thursday, May 6, 2010

Small Time in a Big Time World

It’s a cold, raw early spring day at Fenway Park in 1974, and the Red Sox are playing the Cleveland Indians.

Fenway, in 1974, is not the romanticized national treasure that it has become. It’s old, and its press box is outdoors and exposed to the elements, and practically empty on this mid-week day game.

So is the stadium itself. In the early 70s, midweek games against Cleveland didn’t exactly draw standing-room-only crowds. The team, only seven years removed from its “Impossible Dream” pennant of 1967, had just completed a mediocre season that got manager Eddie Kasko fired. And it was so anxious to bury its dull, boring recent past that it changed its colors – literally.

The Red Sox went from classic button-down uniform shirts to double-knit pullovers, and changed their hats from blue to red. The uniforms were tailored in such a way that if you were even a little chunky around the middle, you looked as if you’d just eaten half of Boston.

During the off-season, the Red Sox traded one of their few stars – Reggie Smith – to the St. Louis Cardinals. They may have included someone else in that trade, but if they did, he was just a throw-in.

In return, they got Rick Wise, who was an established front-line pitcher; Bernie Carbo, who would – a year later – hit one of the most famous home runs in the team’s history; and Reggie “Snacks” Cleveland, an absolute journeyman pitcher.

As you can probably tell from the nickname, Cleveland had weight issues. And athletes with weight issues – especially baseball players – are usually the subject of much scorn and derision.

On this particular day, Reggie was on the mound, and laboring. Reggie was not overpowering, which meant that for him to be effective, he had to have pinpoint control. Or command, as they say these days.
The devil must have been commanding Reggie, though, because he was all over the place. When he wasn’t walking hitters, he was getting hammered.

Remember, the park was cavernous on this day. There may have been all of 10,000 in the stands. It was a day when a piercing voice could just reverberate through the stadium.

Cliff Keane of the Boston Globe had such a voice. Keane, who was nearing the end of a legendary career, may possibly have been the most brazen press box jockey I’ve ever encountered. He’d start in the first inning and if the game went into extras, he’d still be going strong by the 12th. He was non-stop, too. He’d literally look around to see if he could get someone’s goat, and when he’d start in, he’d be relentless.

Now, I’ve always had weight issues too. And in my younger days, I had a moustache. Keane took one look at me and decided I looked like Dick Butkus (the hall of fame linebacker on the Chicago Bears). From then on, every time he’d see me, it was “hey, BUTKUS …”

You know, that was fine with me. I grew up in an era when everyone had a nickname. It was a measure of acceptance, and at ripe old age of 20, even being NOTICED by the legendary Cliff Keane was thrilling enough. I was a correspondent for United Press International, somewhat brash for my age, and I’m sure I turned a lot of people off.

But you know how that goes. Brash people want to belong. They want to be distinctive any way they can. And all I knew back then was that I was a college kid rubbing elbows with the journalistic giants of my youth. Keane, Ray Fitzgerald, Larry Claflin, Jake Liston, Freddie Ciampa, Fran Rosa, Leo Monahan, Joe Guillioti … Tim Horgan … I grew up reading stories by these guys. And now … here I was, right next to them. I was small-time in a big-time world.

I loved listening to the banter. I loved it, for example, when someone would get hurt and Bill Crowley, the Red Sox publicist, would announce, “Petrocelli has a pulled hamstring, and is listed as day-to-day.”

Freddie Ciampa, a little imp of a guy with a high, piercing voice (almost as jarring as Cliff Keane’s) would say, “yeah, but Bill, they play at NIGHT.” Silly stuff like that. I guess you had to be there, and observe the dynamic of all the relationships, to appreciate it.

It kind of reminds me of Vin Scully’s wonderfully witty remark during the 1988 World Series when Kirk Gibson was listed as “day to day.”

“And aren’t we ALL,” Scully said.

Sadly, by the 1974 season, Freddie was no longer with us. Of those journalistic giants of my youth, he was the first to go.
But Keane was still around.

I have no idea why, since it was so cold on this particular day, but Keane was eating an ice cream bar. The rest of us were shivering, and gladly accepting the complementary hot chocolate press box steward Tommy McCarthy was passing around. But there was Cliff Keane, chomping on a chocolate ice cream bar.

Meanwhile, Reggie Cleveland was completely flummoxed. There were baserunners everywhere, and Reggie, pitching from the stretch, had to do a 360 to check them all. He looked like he’d rather have been in a dentist’s chair than on the mound facing Mike Hargrove.

Suddenly, Keane gets up out of his seat and he’s yelling down to the field …
“Hey, REGGIE! Look! Ice Cream! Want some? Get this guy out, Reggie, and you can have some. C’mon, Reggie. Belly it out with these guys. Look! Ice Cream.”

Sure enough, Cleveland looks up to the press box with a sly grin and nods. It must have made Keane’s day.

There are rumors of Keane needling a Red Sox shortstop, who responded by throwing the ball all the way up to the press box during warm-ups and almost winging him. My guess is that it would be impossible to do that, but the fact that it has any credence at all is testament to Cliff’s reputation (though I had to laugh during the movie “A League of Their Own” when one of the women on the Rockford team does essentially the same thing … throws a ball into the stands and nails a heckler).

One of the many things I learned as a young reporter in that environment was that you’ll get noticed very fast if you’re brash and if you always have a comment, or a loud observation, about something you see. But it’s hardly ever for the reasons you’d like.

This was a rough-and-tumble atmosphere back then (way worse than it is now), and if you’d paid your dues, and established yourself on the pages of your newspapers, you could be that way.

But if you were a 20-year-old kid who’d just walked into the press box for the first time, and you decided the best way to be noticed was to be loud and opinionated, you were shit out of luck. I got noticed all right … noticed for being loud and obnoxious, not for being funny or witty.

Chalk it up to “you live and you learn.”

As the years progressed, and my career took different twists and turns, I grew quieter and most introspective in public places, especially in professional venues where the behind-the-scenes action is always fast and furious (often much more frenetic than what’s happening on the field).

These days, I do my job, and I observe. I let other people be press box wags, and I’m sorry to say there’s always someone ready to oblige.

But I’ve observed a lot in the 35 years I’ve inhabited the press box. One good thing about refraining from being a press box bigmouth is that you CAN observe. And I have to tell you … the show behind the show – the mechanics of how the media cover major sporting events – is often more entertaining than the show itself.

Once a week, in this blog, I will attempt to give you a glimpse of that “show behind the show,” and how it all looks to a community journalist who is small time in a big time world.

No set of memoirs is complete without a little bit of biographical information. So why waste time?

If I were to describe myself in one, short, pithy sentence it would be this: I was one of life’s great unchosen many.

I wasn’t the star athlete and I wasn’t the coolest guy. Pick a group – any group – and you could find me way in the background, with the majority of kids who never really stood out as anything special.

And that’s fine. I’ve seen a lot of kids go through their childhoods and teen years with all kinds of praise and attention thrown their way because they could shoot a basketball, or hit a baseball. And by the time they’re 30, life has winnowed most of them out and they’re just like me. They’ve moved to the middle of the pack with the rest of the also-rans.

In fact, I’ve always believed that the adjustment is much tougher for kids who go through life with pucker marks on their behind. Once the adulation ends, it’s a long way down to ordinary.

But that’s the story of my life. Almost, but not quite.

I was a kid in the early-to-mid 1960s when there wasn’t anything else to DO in the summer except play some kind of a game. And when we got old enough, we got introduced to baseball. I lived on a steep hill, and every night during the summer of ’66, when I was in the process of turning 13, all the kids in the neighborhood would play rubber ball, with the baseline going uphill. We may not have produced any major leaguers, but we were in great shape!

There was also Little League, which – even back then – was the great American youth ritual. If you didn’t play, you were a dork, and that’s all there was to it.

I remember the first time my Little League manager tried to get me to pitch. He taught me the proper motion, and how to keep my foot on the rubber, and then said, “now pitch.”

Well, I tried. But then I hit the kid I was pitching to on the helmet. So much for that.

I could hit the ball pretty consistently in Little League. I actually had one, brief fling with stardom when I was 12, when I hit two home runs in the league championship game. Our league used to reward anyone who hit a home run with a half gallon of ice cream at a local grocery store (Fontaine’s Market, just so you can all be impressed with my excellent memory for such things).

So, naturally, every time I hit a home run (I had five that season), I had a whole group of “best friends” just waiting to get some of that free ice cream.

But if I could get the bat on the ball with some regularity, the rest of my game was pretty ordinary. I was a big, lumbering kid at 12 … bigger than most kids my age. I hate to say it, but I think I looked like Baby Huey in my uniform. I was the first baseman mainly because first basemen don’t have to move around too much. I was pretty stationary, even though I could catch anything I could get to.

But, alas, all fame is fleeting. By the time I got into high school, I stopped growing. And I mean stopped COLD. It was as if someone found the “growth” valve inside of me and just turned it off. I went from being jumbo-sized to pint-sized in four years. I saw kids who looked like Chihuahuas in the ninth grade looking like Great Danes by my senior year.

But not me. I shrunk. Or so it would seem. I was one of those football players who reported in August at 195 pounds and was down BELOW 180 by the end of the season. Now, you might think, “hey, not bad. Play football. Get thin.” But that’s not how it works.

A guy flying around at 195 pounds can do a lot of damage. But a guy flying around at 180, who USED to be 195, usually gets flattened. Finally, I just stopped playing during my junior year. I was just tired of getting beat up.

Still, the best friends I have from high school are all football players … some of whom used to beat the crap out of me in practice.

If there was an advantage to losing weight during football, it showed itself in baseball, where I could suddenly vacuum up every ground ball hit near me. Great, right? I’m thinking, “finally, I’m not the big, lumbering first baseman.”

But I couldn’t throw. I’d go far and wide to catch a grounder, but I’d throw it so badly it negated everything I did to catch the ball. They also started throwing me curveballs in high school, and I couldn’t hit them to save my life. I was definitely bench material. So, just like football, I decided it wasn’t worth the aggravation.

I will have to say that I have some serious regrets about my lack of patience with myself … not so much in football, since I never really liked playing it anyway (LOVE to watch it, though), but in baseball, which I loved playing.

I still love baseball. I love everything about it. I live for April through October and literally feel as if someone in my family has died when the season ends. I love going to a good high school or American Legion game almost as much as I like going to Fenway Park. In fact, the closer I am to the actual GAME, the better I like it. I am a certified umpire, and there’s nothing I like better than to be on the field during an honest-to-God baseball game.

I became a sportswriter strictly by accident. I entered college in 1971 … an 18-year-old kid with a head filled with rock music, the fear of being drafted and sent to Vietnam, and a tinge of the 60s rebel mentality. While I always followed the Red Sox, I have to say that my interest in them had started to wane considerably after the ultimate thrill of watching them win the pennant at 100-1 odds in 1967. I went to a lot of games in ’67.

But as 1968 developed, and attitudes toward the war, and authority, started to harden, I felt a disconnect between what I once held near and dear and what I saw around me. I turned 15 in August of 1968, having already watched in disbelief as Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were shot to death. I was too young to understand the enormity of JFK’s assassination in 1963, so, to me, Bobby’s is the one that hit me hardest.

In 1968, the Detroit Tigers ran away and hid in the American League, and the Red Sox had to struggle just to finish in fourth place. The thrill was definitely gone, and for the next three years, they just didn’t seem to matter that much to me.

This was also around the time the Celtics were finishing up their magnificent run of NBA championships, and it was also just when the Bruins – bottom feeders in the National Hockey League for almost a decade – were making their move toward becoming, to this day, the most charismatic team in Boston history.

But on the whole, other things were just more important. What sports I followed, I followed with my left hand as I developed more of an interest in music and politics. I knew early in life that I wanted to write, but I had visions of being the next Mike Royko.

This was my mindset when I declared journalism as my major at Northeastern University in Boston in 1971.

Northeastern was a pioneer in cooperative education, a work-study program where you go to school for a semester and work the next one. At the end of my freshman year, I got an interview in the sports department of the Boston Globe for a co-op job that would have involved, basically, taking high school scores over the phone at night. Ernie Roberts, the late sports editor, gave me some kind of a typing test, and I did not pass it to his satisfaction. Ernie, by the way, used to write a Saturday morning potpourri-type column that he began by reciting his breakfast.

I remember one of Ernie’s columns not for anything useful, but because he was writing about a linebacker at Dartmouth College, and said, “He has the one thing EVERY linebacker must have …”

I thought he was going to say “a desire to knock the SNOT out of every ball carrier/quarterback/blocker he saw,” which stands to reason. That’s what linebackers do.

But he didn’t. This big buildup led to the following: “he has GREAT lateral pursuit.”

What? To me, that’s like my buddy telling me my blind date has “a great personality.” It’s like, “yeah, but …”

Anyway, Ernie Roberts told me he couldn’t hire me because I couldn’t type. So I went back to the Co-op office at Northeastern with my tail between my legs. The poor woman (Sheila Killhoury … again, there’s that memory!) hooked me up with United Press International, which needed a copy boy.

Great, I thought. At least at the Globe I’d be writing SOMETHING. I’d be the gopher at UPI. But it was money, and UPI was – at the time – a prestigious news organization.

I went to UPI, where a gangly old man with severe – and I DO mean severe – scoliosis greeted me. His name was Stanton “but don’t call me that; call me Stan” Berens.

What a scary, scary sight Stan Berens was. He was well over six feet, but couldn’t have weighed more than 150 pounds soaking wet. He was all skin and bones. And gruff? He was as subtle as sandpaper. The summer I started working there, I went to lunch with a friend (female), who met me at the office.

When I came back, just about everyone wanted to know who my girlfriend was (she wasn’t). But only Stan Berens could cut to the chase.

“Does she FUCK?” he wanted to know.

I had a terrifying 15-minute interview with this man, and left the office, which was on Boston’s Beacon Hill, wondering whether I could EVER work for such a guy. He scared the SHIT out of me.

But he hired me. In the beginning, I got coffee, donuts and lunch, opened mail and filed reams and reams of copy

I remember the sandwich shop around the corner from the office was called the “S&M Deli,” which seemed like a rather ODD name to me (one of my colleagues at UPI, a guy by the name of Bill Frederick, used to call it the “whip and chain”). It was named for the two brothers who ran it: Sumner and Milton.

I have to say that there was some magnificent talent – and equally magnificent offbeat personalities – in that dingy second-floor office on Beacon Hill. Stan Berens, for all his quirks, was a real newsman. He feared no one.

As is the case with most newspapers (and probably most American businesses), the upper management at UPI was ineffectual to the point of being clueless. The day Nixon resigned, one of the top regional editors -- guy by the name of William B. Ketter (had to say is FORMALLY) came out into the newsroom and offered that we might want to send an advisory over the wire that we’d be covering all aspects of the historic events that were about to occur.

Berens was incredulous.

“Why do we need to do that?” he asked. “We’re a fucking NEWS AGENCY aren’t we? Isn’t that what we’re SUPPOSED to do?”

Wild Bill Ketter – he of the painted smile and little-boy countenance -- slunk back into his office.

There were others. Dave Haskell taught me the value of following style (not to mention how to roll the perfect doobie). David was a curious combination of old-fashioned taskmaster and Bohemian counterculture. I mean, he grew his own stuff and didn’t really care who knew it.

He also – back in the early 1970s – used to ride his bicycle from his home in Malden to work in Boston.

Oh … and he had a temper, which he used strategically to scare off any idiot managers who dared to tell him how to do his job.

Gil Peters was another interesting character. My earliest memory of Gil occurred on my second or third day of the job, when I had just lugged a bunch of boxes (filled with teletype copy) to the basement.

I stumbled back into the office and flopped down at my desk (which was next to Gil’s).

“Steve,” he said, “you look like you could use a cup of coffee. Do you want one?”

“Yeah,” I gasped.

He threw me a five-dollar bill.

“Good,” he said, “buy yourself one while you’re getting ME one.”

Gil and Dave were both Northeastern boys, just like me. So I felt some kinship toward them early on.

And just like me, Gil Peters wrote for the Northeastern News. In fact, he had a column in college called “Gil’s Swill,” which – if you knew him – was pure Peters. The man had some serious talent for word plays and puns – and we’re talking REAL groaners here.

Aside from teaching me how to be a wiseass (something that, back then, I really didn’t need to learn), Gil – as the sports editor for the Boston region for much of my stay at UPI – allowed me to do as much writing as I possibly could. And, thanks to him, I was in the press box when Bernie Carbo and Carlton Fisk hit their home runs in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series.

But, by far, the person most responsible for my “big break” was the guy who preceded Gil Peters … Allan R. Bruce.

Al Bruce was a mammoth man with a heart to match. I began a six-month stretch at UPI in 1972, and lo and behold, the Red Sox got involved in a pennant race. So all of a sudden, they were relevant again. Al Bruce covered all the home games, and used to tell me, the next day, about all the wonderful stuff Bill Lee did, or all the stupid things Cliff Keane said in the press box.

During that summer, as the pennant race (which was among the Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees) intensified, Al used to get me tickets. And as Luis Tiant got more and more popular, Al used to make sure I got into games when he pitched.

I figured, if nothing else, I had an ironclad ticket connection, even though Al was far too nice a guy to be treated as such a crass commodity.

I even had tickets to a playoff game … had there been one. Sadly, the Tigers beat out the Red Sox when Luis Aparicio tripped rounding third base in Detroit.

The Patriots, in 1972, may have been the worst team in the history of the National Football League, so I didn’t have any desire to pester Al about tickets. Not to mention that going to Foxborough, in 1972, was like crossing the Maginot Line. There was one way in, and one way out, no public transportation, and lines of cars stalled in traffic. If you’ve ever seen “Field of Dreams,” picture the very last scene, where an endless line of cars heads toward the baseball diamond. It isn’t that much better today, even though the state widened the highway and added an underpass to the infrastructure around the stadium. It’s still one big parking lot – especially leaving the stadium at the end of a game.

Still, I was sitting at my desk when the phone call came into the office, from Pat Horne, the Patriots PR guy, that John Mazur, who was the coach, resigned (or was fired, take your pick). I yelled into Al’s office, “Mazur quit.” All of a sudden, Al, who had to go 350 easy, sprung up from his chair and rumbled into the office like a crazed fullback. I never knew a guy so big could move so fast.

When hockey season began, I renewed my pestering, asking Al if he could get me into some Bruins games (or Celtics games; it didn’t matter much to me). The World Hockey Association came into existence in 1972, as well, and besides the Bruins and Celtics, we had the New England Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes) to deal with.

Finally, Al said “how would you like to GO to a Bruins game?”

You’re kidding, right?

“You aren’t going just to sit there. You can run quotes for me.”

I didn’t even know what that MEANT.

So, on a Sunday night, against the Vancouver Canucks, I covered my first professional sporting event. And the Bruins were awful. Here they were, defending Stanley Cup champions, and the damn CANUCKS beat them.

I was totally ignorant of press box protocol, and I can remember being visibly pissed off at Carol Vadnais for coughing up the puck on a play that resulted in a Vancouver goal.

Al looked at me.

“You can’t do that,” he said.

“Do what?”

“You can’t get all pissed off when they lose. That’s not allowed up here.”

Aha! No cheering in the press box. It’s unprofessional. People in press boxes are there to work, he said, not be cheerleaders. If I wanted to do this for a living, I’d really have to tone it down.

And he was right, of course. If you’re going to do your job, you have to stay neutral and focused. It’s all right to be a lunatic in the living room (and I’ve had some real moments of uncontrolled fury), but at the venue, you have to curb your enthusiasm, as the show says, even if it KILLS you.

I generally do my best to adhere to this golden rule of sports writing. I only really slipped up badly once … and you’ll hear about that shortly.

After the game, and after Al gave me directions to the Bruins locker room, I went inside, feeling as if every eye in the place was placed squarely on ME. I was 19 years old, and I was in the Boston Bruins locker room. And there was Phil Esposito. Naked. I was not prepared to see Phil Esposito – or any athlete – walking around naked. These days, they can’t walk around in the buff, because females have the same access to pro sports locker rooms as men do, but that wasn’t the case in 1972.

So Espo could walk around for all the world to see, and nobody thought twice about it. I learned soon enough that it was part of the job, but I’ll admit we were talking SEVERE culture shock here.

I also learned what “running quotes” meant that night, too. Here’s how it worked back then (and in some cases still works): Athlete sits in front of his locker (which really isn’t a locker at all, but a stall), and the media hounds descend upon him. The crowd around the stall is usually three-to-four deep, and often extends to such a degree that the athlete in the NEXT stall can’t get near enough to it to put his clothes on. So he struts around naked, too, pissing and moaning about “all those goddamn reporters” keeping him from getting dressed.

The athlete being interviewed generally speaks as softly as humanly possible, because he’ll be damned if he’s going to make the media’s job easy (Esposito was the exception here, because he didn’t know HOW to talk softly; he was always a one-man brass band). An interview with Bobby Orr was like listening to someone whisper. Great guy, Bobby Orr. Barely ever spoke above a whisper in a group interview.

I pushed and shoved my way into these group gropes because manners do not count in these situations. It’s every man for himself. This why print media people HATE TV people … or did back then, anyway. Television people came with television cameras, and they were big, bulky things that their handlers didn’t mind swinging all over the place. Cameramen would see a group grope going on, march right on over to it, and stick their cameras wherever they could find an opening. And that always seemed to be right next to MY head. I grew to hate them passionately.

After I removed myself from that jungle, I went back upstairs to the press box and gave Al the quotes, which he used in his story. So, “running quotes” meant I did the work … Al did the story. But, hey, I was 19 and watching the Bruins for free.

Things have changed slightly since then. Most venues now have an interview room, where the coach and designated star of the day address the media without the group grope atmosphere. For example, these days, Tom Brady never has to put up with a horde of reporters crowding his locker. But defensive lineman Vince Wilfork – on the day he picked up a fumble during a playoff game against the New York Jets and rumbled almost 30 yards with it – did.

I must have passed my test, because not only did Al let me go to more Bruins games with him, but he let me cover the Whalers all by myself. And come the spring of ’73, I even got to cover the Red Sox with increasing frequency.

I covered sports on a regular basis throughout my internship with UPI, thanks to Gil and Al. It was win-win situation for everybody. Having done it enough times to know, I can tell you it’s a real grind covering a professional sports team, so I’m sure they appreciated the occasional respite.

And I sure appreciated the opportunity. In the summer of 1973, I helped cover the U.S. Pro Tennis Tournament, which, at the time, was a major deal. It was held the week before the U.S. Open, and the surface at the Longwood Cricket Club was the same as it was at Forest Hills. So all the pros participated and used it as a warm up for the Grand Slam event the following week.

This was the tournament that pretty much put Jimmy Connors on the map, by the way. He upset Arthur Ashe in the final, and never looked back. A year later, he and Chris Evert won Wimbledon.

Bjorn Borg played Jan Kodis in the semifinal a few years later, was down 2-0 in sets (they played five sets in the semis and finals), and managed to come back and win. I was there for that, too.

This was all a little tough to comprehend at age 19, and I’m sure I didn’t handle any of it gracefully. I’m sure my youth, and my brashness, irritated a lot of veterans reporters who resented this wiseass KID encroaching on their territory.

This is why I sympathize with young kids who are thrust into fame before they’re ready. I wasn’t ready for the breaks I got, and there is absolutely no comparison between when I did at age 19 and what kids like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James did at similar ages. In fact, count me as a huge LeBron James fan, because the kid seems to have his head on about as straight as anyone in his situation – and of his age – can.

Kobe’s a little different, though. It took a little too long to grow up, and he left some wreckage along the way.

You’d think that anyone with this kind of a dossier at age 19 would be winning Pulitzer Prizes for the New York Times. But I took a different path.

I was hired fulltime by UPI right out of college, and worked as an editor/writer there from 1976 through the middle of 1979, covering a variety of different things. I got my first taste of crime and slime when I covered the murder of five people in a gang-related shooting at a Boston nightclub. I covered politics. I covered the story of Chad Green, a 2-year-old boy who had leukemia, but whose parents wouldn’t let doctors give him chemotherapy. I covered the Boston Pops. And I even interviewed Dave Powers, John F. Kennedy’s personal assistant, for the 15th anniversary of the assassination.

But Gil left in 1978, and I thought for sure I’d get his job. But I didn’t. I got passed over in favor of an eminently qualified writer named Peter May, who still works for the Boston Globe. I never held it against Peter, of course, but I sure as hell held it against the guy who made the decision.

About two or three months after that, they made me a night editor (which I didn’t want) and stuck me on the overnight shift.

I figured it was some kind of a sign. So I followed the sign. The Daily Evening Item in Lynn, my hometown newspaper, had an opening on its copy desk, and I applied. And I was hired on the spot.

Don Davis, the guy who passed me over for the sports editor’s position, said he was “shocked and saddened” by my desire to leave. Let’s just leave it that I questioned his sincerity.

My life has been a series of missed opportunities that have led to better things. I doubt I’d have had half as much professional fun in my early years had Ernie “Oatmeal” Roberts thought I could type; and had I not been passed over at UPI, I’d have never discovered how absolutely, wonderfully, rewarding community journalism is.

So that’s why I haven’t won any Pulitzers (though I did win two awards for local columns, one in 1984 and again in 2001). I found my niche at a community newspaper, where I really feel as if the things I write make a difference.

A few years ago, a woman whose son was on the college-hunting circuit told me that she and her husband put together a hefty scrapbook of the boy’s accomplishments. Many of the articles she put in that scrapbook were written by me.

“You have no idea,” she said, “how much you influence people’s lives.”

It meant a lot to hear that, because that’s the reason I stayed behind when the bus to the big-time world left the station. I figured I could make more of a difference in my own community than I could as a faceless writer for a big paper. And I have to think of that every time I see people half my age living far better than I do (like the 30-year-old ESPN football draftnick who lives in a high-rise condo on the Boston waterfront).

Most everything I cover these days is fun. Because I cover so much local sports, I can find myself sitting in the bleachers at Fraser Field in Lynn, MA, on a beautiful spring afternoon, in a pair of shorts and a polo shirt, with a scorebook in my hand, getting PAID to watch baseball … while other people are stuck in offices in shirts and ties. I count my blessings.

And I count them, too, when I see some of the things I see, especially in high school venues. I see the unbridled joy of a 17-year-old kid who has just hit the game-winning shot in basketball, or has quarterbacked his team to a state Super Bowl title. I get a fleeting glimpse of the camaraderie I left behind in high school.

And at the same time, I was in the press box at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis watching a great football game in 2008 (great even if the Patriots blew a 21-6 halftime lead) and seeing Peyton Manning reinvent himself before my eyes. And I was sitting in Fenway Park for Game 2 of the 2004 World Series, watching Bloody Sock Redux (and listening to Curt Schilling recount his harrowing experience on the day he pitched that game).

And I was also sitting in Yankee Stadium in 2003, violating the cheering/emotion protocol, as Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in too long and the Sox coughed up a 5-2 lead while only five outs away from winning the pennant.

Poor Ted Sarandis (a radio guy from WEEI in Boston at the time). I completely lost it when that happened … perhaps the ONLY time covering pro sports when I just resorted to being a 10-year-old again … and he was sitting in front of me. Of course, he was just as pissed off as I was.

I saw Michael Vick, while at Virginia Tech, come to Boston College’s Alumni Stadium and give one of the most electrifying performances I’ve ever seen in college football. I will never forget the pandemonium that followed Doug Flutie as he tried to leave Fitton Field in Worcester after the Boston College-Holy Cross game of 1984 so he could catch a plane to New York and receive the Heisman Trophy.

I can’t say I’ve seen it all, but I’ve seen plenty.

So there you have it. You are now up to date on my whys and wherefores.

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