Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘sports’

I had to squeeze my way through the crowd amassed near the front entrance of the Applebee’s, slipping past the harried hostess and toward the bar which, thankfully, had a handful of empty seats. I chose a chair positioned in front of an empty 22-ounce beer glass and a signed receipt. The bartender cleared the detritus and asked me what I wanted. After procuring a 22-ounce Fat Tire and a menu, I let the bartender know why I was at a bar in Brookings, South Dakota by myself on a Friday night.

“Could you turn one of these televisions to ESPN?” I said, motioning to the two televisions closest to me.

The bartender obliged, flipping the smaller of the two screens from the MAC Championship football game between Northern Illinois and Kent State on ESPN2 (who the heck would want to watch that? No one here cares about either one of those teams, I thought) to ESPN. Now, I had a half-hour to have dinner and call my wife until I could watch my beloved Syracuse Orange basketball team take on Arkansas. Like me, Syracuse was on the road.

South Dakota is the 40th state I’ve visited and, in at least a third of them, I’ve found myself at a bar or a restaurant watching one of my favorite teams. Most of those instances were like Friday’s, where I wanted to have dinner and a beer or two while watching the game. Nebraska Omaha basketball is what brought me to South Dakota; I would call their game at South Dakota State the following night and the Applebee’s was across the parking lot from our hotel. In 2004, I was in Naperville, Illinois to call early-season Division III basketball when the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers engaged in their infamous brawl that spilled into the stands. However, I never saw the melee live because I was focused on the sole television showing Syracuse pick up a key non-conference win over Memphis at Madison Square Garden. I was on pins and needles at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport one afternoon in 2007, where I watched the New York Giants lose a nip-and-tuck game to the Dallas Cowboys.

There is something comforting about watching one of my favorite teams far from my home base. My 2 ½-year-old daughter can probably relate; she brings her favorite blanket with her whenever she travels far from home. Seeing one of my teams on television while I’m on the road is like having my own favorite blanket in my possession. Most of the time, I’m the only one with a rooting interest, which is preferable to being in enemy territory. In 2009, I was at a bar in downtown Hartford, Connecticut when Syracuse beat Connecticut in six overtimes. Fortunately, the Connecticut fans weren’t too hostile when they noticed I wasn’t cheering for their team and we were all in awe as the game dragged on without a resolution. I was once at a bar in Kalamazoo, Michigan for a Giants-New England Patriots tilt when I spotted a guy in a Tom Brady jersey a few seats away. We didn’t acknowledge each other the entire game, but we tried to outdo each other with our cheers. Only after the Giants lost did we turn to each other and briefly discuss the game.

I think the bartender saw my subdued fist pump when Syracuse scored their first basket in Arkansas. Because, after that, he asked me who I was rooting for. My fist pumps continued as Syracuse continued to efficiently carve through the Arkansas press, leading to several easy baskets. I leaned back in my chair when James Southerland, Syracuse’s best shooter from long range, unleashed a three pointer from about 24 feet, not sure if it was a good shot. However, Southerland’s jumper found the bottom of the net, leading to my most emphatic fist pump of the evening. Southerland’s shooting exhibition continued, as he connected on seven three pointers in the first half. Each three seemed to be deeper than the next and the last one led to both a quiet cheer as well as a fist pump. Arkansas went on a run late in the half, trimming Syracuse’s 15-point lead to five at the intermission as I ordered my second Fat Tire.

After a bathroom break, I was back in my seat in time to see Southerland nail two more deep three pointers in the opening minutes of the second half; each three was preceded by a lean back and followed by an emphatic fist pump. I let out a “Yes!” when Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams stole the ball and took it in for a layup. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see people giggling at the table to my right, but I was unconcerned. I’m happy that my team was playing well and I didn’t care if all of Brookings knew it (It certainly seemed like all of Brookings was at that Applebee’s. There were people crowded around the hostess podium all evening). Syracuse stretched their lead to 15 points once more, never trailing in the second half in a nine-point win. I paid my bill during the last television timeout, finishing my third beer as Syracuse was putting the finishing touches on their victory at the free-throw line. Of course, watching your team win is always better than watching them lose but this is even truer when you go out of your way to watch them miles from your – and their – home.

Tonight, I’ll be out of my comfort zone again, because I’ll be in Madison, Wisconsin when the Giants take the field in an important divisional game against the Washington Redskins. Since it’s a Monday Night Football game, I doubt I’ll have to coax a bartender to turn a television to it, but there’s a good chance I’ll be the only person in Madison rooting for the Giants. But, that’s okay. Especially if the Giants win.

Read Full Post »

Thanks to my job as a reporter covering the Kansas City Royals for their flagship radio station, I’ve developed quite a following on Twitter. Recently, one of my followers asked me if I was a fan of the Royals. I replied that, while I like to see the Royals succeed, I don’t consider myself a fan. My response led to a lengthy Twitter discussion about why I’m not a fan of the Royals; some suggested I was a traitor for not unabashedly rooting for the Royals and others assumed I don’t care about the Royals if I’m not a fan of the team.

I can’t help that I grew up in New York City rooting for the New York Mets, rather than in Kansas City rooting for the Royals. I suppose I could toss my past aside and pretend the Royals are the only team I’ve ever cared about, but that would be disingenuous. Even though I do a Royals post-game show and have many people who follow me on Twitter because I cover the Royals, I don’t hide my past or present allegiances. I learned about and fell in love with baseball thanks to the Mets and pretending otherwise would be ignoring a key part of what’s made me who I am.

When I first took the Royals reporter job, just before the start of the 2009 baseball season, I scoured the internet for information about the Royals teams of the previous few seasons, taking detailed notes that almost filled up an entire legal pad. Now, in my fourth season covering the Royals, I feel like know as much about the team as anyone who didn’t grow up following them could. I’ve gotten to know many of the players, coaches and executives – past and present – very well. I enjoy interacting with and talking to Royals fans and I feel I have a good grasp of the fan base’s mood. I like to see the Royals do well – it’s easier and more enjoyable covering a winning team than it is covering a losing team – but I still don’t consider myself a fan.

I am a fan of Syracuse University’s teams, especially football and men’s basketball. I am a fan of the New York Giants. I am a fan of the New York Knicks. I will celebrate the successes of those teams and brood over their failures. I will always wear merchandise with the logos and colors of those teams. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I will always care whether Syracuse, the Giants and the Knicks win or lose. However, if I stop covering the Royals, I will no longer follow them closely. Sure, I’ll still be interested in how they do – I occasionally peruse box scores, rosters and schedules for teams I covered a decade ago – but I will no longer concern myself with their day-to-day activities. I no longer consider myself a Mets fan because I’ve spent the last decade immersed in coverage of other baseball teams, making it difficult for me to follow the Mets closely at the Major League level; this is true even though I covered one of the Mets minor league affiliates for four years.

Some say covering a team you aren’t a fan of is a good thing; it leads to more impartial coverage, they say. I think there are advantages to covering a team you grew up rooting for: you’re already familiar with that team’s history, you know what’s important to that team’s fans and you know how those fans think. And, seeing the inner workings and getting to know the on- and off-field members of a team decreases the chances of a fan-turned-media member becoming an unabashed cheerleader. Even the most plugged in fans are prone to speculation about the motives and character of a player, coach or team, speculation that often isn’t very informed or is based on what others have told them. On the other hand, media who cover a team are less likely to speculate because they have a better idea of what’s going on. And, when they do speculate, it’s usually well-informed speculation based on their intimate knowledge of and on- and off-the-record access to a team and its key players. Unlike fans, media who cover a team every day are less likely to run hot and cold about a team or player’s performance because they usually have a better understanding of the big picture. If you are a fan of a team, covering that team every day will make you less of a fan and more of a shrewd observer.

So, no, I’m not a Royals fan and I doubt I’ll ever really be a Royals fan. But, I do enjoy covering them and I hope they succeed in turning things around and eventually make it back to the World Series. Because, who wouldn’t want to cover a World Series?

Read Full Post »

If you happen to find yourself in the same press box as me, you’ll notice I’m one of the best-dressed media members there; only the television broadcasters routinely out-dress me. Being the best-dressed in the press box isn’t a compliment because, frankly, it’s not hard to do. My work attire is a dress shirt (no tie) or a polo shirt, slacks and dress shoes. Business casual. Nothing fancy. And, yet, compared to many of my peers, I might as well be Beau Brummell.

Recently, Major League Baseball became the first pro sports league to issue guidelines on media dress. Flip-flops, short skirts, shorts that leave little to the imagination, ripped jeans and apparel with the team logo are just some of the items banned by the new dress code. If you’ve never been in a press box, these guidelines probably make little sense to you. After all, shouldn’t media members know not to wear short shorts? However, having been in many press boxes – most of them at baseball stadiums – I know these attire guidelines are sorely needed. Most media members do dress appropriately, but some need a reminder. And, media who cover baseball tend to be the worst-dressed; baseball is played every day, often in hot weather, and the visiting team’s beat writer may be on the last day of a 10-game road trip. Nevertheless, I shouldn’t be able to see the scar on that beat writer’s thigh through the hole in his jeans.

I like Major League Baseball’s dress code and would like to see it expanded to all pro sports leagues. However, I think the dress code could be tightened further. Here are some other items I think media should be banned from wearing.

Hawaiian shirts – If I have to explain to you why Hawaiian shirts should be worn at anything other than a luau, then we’ll probably never be friends. You’re covering a sporting event, not playing shuffleboard on a cruise. When I was an intern for a short-season minor league team in college, a visiting broadcaster wore a Hawaiian shirt for every game of a five-game series; each shirt was uglier than the one he wore the day before. And, he tore down the “No Smoking” sign in his broadcast booth, leaving cigar detritus for us to clean up once the series was over. Actually, I’m okay with Hawaiian shirts; let’s just ban that guy instead.

Media giveaway items – Right after college, I got a job as a sports reporter, which allowed me to cover the 2002 NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There, they gave out nice, gray fleeces with an abstract All-Star Game logo on them. I wore that fleece to the next few events I covered – I didn’t know any better back then – until I worked an event at which I saw another media member wearing the same exact fleece. After that, I never wore that fleece to work again. Last spring training, Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost made fun of a media member who wore the same dirty, tattered baseball cap every day. It was a hat given out by the Big 12 Conference with the logos of all 12 (at the time) of the conference’s universities; the hat appeared old enough to have been issued upon the Big 12’s formation in 1996. If you get a nice freebie, don’t wear it everywhere you go and certainly don’t take it to every event you cover. All media members are moochers who love free stuff as much as dogs love fire hydrants, but no need to make it so obvious.

Items a media member thinks are “stylish” or “his trademark”—There’s a member of the Kansas City sports media who always wears a straw boater hat, and because a straw boater hat isn’t hideous enough, he often complements it with a toothpick dangling from a corner of his mouth. That look may work for someone on a yacht, but it’s a strange sight in a press box. I used to know of another media member who always wore a scarf to sporting events he covered, regardless of the season. Half of the scarf would hang vertically over his chest and (sizeable) belly and the other half rested behind his shoulder; apparently he lost the goggles that would’ve been the perfect topper to his World War I flying ace costume. You’re covering sports, not trying to get into GQ (or, in the case of my boater-hatted friend, Sailing Today). Plus, you don’t want to wear anything that might prevent an athlete or coach from taking you seriously. Dress like a normal, professional person and save your pieces of flair and signature items for your next SoHo loft party.

Stained clothing – We’ve all spilled coffee, ketchup or something similar on ourselves at work, leaving a sizeable stain on our shirt or pants the rest of the day – no big deal. However, if that guacamole stain was on the shirt the last time you wore it, or you washed those pants several times, yet that orange juice stain won’t leave the crotch area, that’s a problem. It’s also a problem if people can always tell what you’ve eaten by looking at your clothes. You’re at work, and wearing clean, unsoiled clothes to work isn’t too much to ask. And, if you’re an unrepentant slob, dress in black and wear a bib or an apron every time you eat.

Sneakers with dress pants – Sneakers are a common sight in press boxes across America, which isn’t a problem. However, wearing sneakers with dress pants is a problem. Reminds me of women who wear sneakers with a dress or skirt; the two just don’t go together. If you’re wearing dress pants, put on dress shoes. Wear the sneakers with jeans. I’m far from a fashion guru, but I think a simple rule like that should be common sense.

My standards are too harsh, you say? Perhaps. But, my time in press boxes tell me many in media aren’t good at policing themselves and dressing appropriately. No one’s saying you have to be Tommy Hilfiger, but you shouldn’t be Homer Simpson, either. A media member’s clothes should never be a topic of conversation.

Read Full Post »

The first New York Mets game I attended ended with Mets slugger Darryl Strawberry hitting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, giving the Mets the win and making me a Darryl Strawberry fan at five years old. Once I became immersed in baseball a few years later, I became an even bigger Strawberry booster. He was a man of prodigious talents who was fun to watch whether he was hitting a baseball 400 feet or swinging and missing at a pitch in the dirt – and he did both often. Strawberry was a very good player in the clutch, but he was also prone to lengthy slumps. He had the tools to be a great defensive player, but he seemed uninterested in the field. However, none of Strawberry’s shortcomings muted my ardor for him because I understood he, like every other athlete, has flaws. But, as far as his baseball skills were concerned, I felt Strawberry’s positives far outweighed his negatives.

I was still a fan of Strawberry’s after I learned he was a drug and alcohol abuser, which helped explain his streakiness. Even though I was disappointed to find out about Strawberry’s off-field problems, I still loved him for his on-field excellence. At a young age, I saw Strawberry for what he was: a great athlete and a troubled human being. And, no matter what, I was always in awe of his on-field excellence while bemoaning his off-field issues.

Over the years, I’ve wondered how I developed the rare-for-a-youngster – but healthy – concept of admiring athletes for their playing abilities without expecting them to be flawless. I think it’s because of where and when I grew up. In New York City, two things sell newspapers and get people to watch the news more than anything else: sports and scandals. And, those two things were far from mutually exclusive when I was growing up. Two years after a magical season that won him the 1985 National League Cy Young Award, Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden checked into a drug rehabilitation clinic after testing positive for cocaine and relapses would be common throughout his career. New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor was one of the most feared and dominant players in NFL history, but he had several run-ins with the law and his problems with drugs were an open secret. Heck, even New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner got into the act, getting banned from baseball for 2 ½ years after hiring a thug to dig up dirt on outfielder Dave Winfield, one of the Yankees’ star players. And those are just a few examples of sports scandals involving New York City athletes and sports figures during my formative years in the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s. Combine a potential sports scandal with the insatiable and competitive New York City media and no stone revealing an athlete’s bad behavior is left unturned. New York City media aren’t above fabricating or embellishing a scandal either. Thanks to them, I grew up in an environment that looked to tear athletes and sports figures down, rather than build them up and/or keep their misdeeds quiet.

In other words, I grew up in a much different place than State College, Pennsylvania, home of The Pennsylvania State University.

One of the biggest reasons the allegations of child molestation and sexual assault levied against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, and the subsequent cover up – in which Joe Paterno, Penn State’s legendary former head football coach, took part – have gotten so much attention is because Paterno is a hero to many in Central Pennsylvania and beyond. Not only has Paterno won a lot of games, but he seemed very committed to the growth of his university as a whole, donating millions of dollars to Penn State and graduating his players at a higher rate than most big-time football coaches, all while helping Penn State develop into a nationally-recognized university academically and athletically. Some have argued Paterno is the most important figure in Penn State’s history, an argument that would be nearly impossible to make for any other college coach, past or present, at any other university. And, unlike many sports heroes – including my beloved Strawberry – Paterno was always very accessible. He and his family have lived in the same modest house in State College, Pennsylvania for decades and, for many years, Paterno would walk from his home to Penn State’s Beaver Stadium on game days. Many Penn State fans felt like they knew Paterno and felt he was a man of unimpeachable integrity, which made the revelation that he chose not to go to the authorities when told of possible inappropriate contact Sandusky had with minors in the Penn State football facilities that much more galling.

No sport provokes more passion, pride or unabashed idolatry than big-time college football – a sport that’s virtually nonexistent in New York City. College football’s invisibility on the New York City sports scene is in part because there are no big-time programs with long track records of national championships or yearly bowl-game appearances in or near the five boroughs (Rutgers University’s football team has had success in recent years, but they’re barely a blip on the New York City sports scene). The invisibility is also in part because unabashed idolatry just doesn’t jibe with the majority of New Yorkers and New York City isn’t a market where media will go out of their way to praise athletes and sports figures or hide their transgressions. It would’ve been impossible for a cover up like the one that occurred at Penn State to occur in New York City, where the media would’ve put pressure on Penn State to  remove Sandusky in 1998, the first time a police report alleging Sandusky molested young boys was filed. The combination of sports and scandal are an irresistible pull to New Yorkers and the New York City media.

Because of when and where I grew up, I never had a romantic, rose-colored-glasses view of sports, but that certainly didn’t dim my passion for sports or for athletes and others involved in sports. And, while I’m not a cynic, I do follow – and, nowadays, cover – sports with my eyes wide open. I admire what I can see and don’t jump to conclusions about what I can’t see. I understand most people involved in sports are good, well-meaning folks, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be corrupted by money, prestige or power, just like anyone else. I’ll always enjoy the games but I always keep in mind they’re just that – games. And those participating in those games are just as human and as flawed as everyone else.

And, no matter what happens, Darryl Strawberry will always be my favorite athlete.

Read Full Post »

The Binghamton Mets’ manager’s office at NYSEG (pronounced “nice egg”, an acronym for the local electric company) Stadium in Binghamton, New York had a 35-inch television hanging from the ceiling in the corner diagonally across from the door. The channel was turned to ESPN, as it generally was in the early afternoon. ESPN was talking about the resurgent Detroit Tigers; under new manager Jim Leyland, the Tigers were not only poised to finish with their first winning record in 13 years, but they were likely to make the post-season as well.

I was sitting in a chair next to the manager’s desk, which was occupied by Juan Samuel, who was in a unique position to talk about the Tigers’ success. Before signing on to manage Binghamton for the 2006 season, Samuel had spent the previous seven years as a coach for the Tigers. The Tigers were dreadful during Samuel’s tenure there; just three years prior, Samuel was on the staff of a Tigers team that lost an AL record 119 games. After the ‘05 season, the Tigers decided to part ways with manager Alan Trammell and the contracts of Samuel and the rest of the coaching staff weren’t renewed.

Samuel told me he wasn’t surprised by the Tigers’ success, that last year’s staff thought they were very close to being a very good team. I asked him if he were bitter or upset that he didn’t get a chance to be a part of that year’s team. He said he wasn’t.

“We had three years [with manager Alan Trammell] to get it done and we didn’t,” Samuel said. “We deserved to be let go.”

I asked Samuel about the 119-loss 2003 season and how much accountability he and the rest of the coaching staff had for that year.

“I can tell you we worked just as hard as every other Major League coaching staff that year,” Samuel said. “We just didn’t get the results we wanted.”

That comment led me and Samuel into a conversation about the role and importance of Major League coaching staffs. Samuel told me that, while coaches and managers can help, talent almost always wins out in the end. So, if you don’t have talented players, you’re going to struggle to win ballgames and if you do have talented players, you won’t struggle as much to win. That’s true regardless of who’s managing or coaching, Samuel told me.

The statistics agree with Samuel. There have been several studies done on the impact of a manager on a Major League team’s success. Most of them concluded that a manager wasn’t worth more than five wins or losses over the course of a season. In other words, the worst possible manager for a team would cost them five wins while the best possible manager would help them win five more games. Since most managers are neither the “best” or the “worst” for a given team, their impact is even smaller. And, the impact of individual coaches much smaller. Ultimately, it comes down to your team’s talent.

I distinctly remember when I knew that Trey Hillman needed to be relieved of his duties as manager of the Kansas City Royals. It was during a particularly rough stretch for the offense and Hillman was asked what the team needed to do to get out of it.

“It’s gotten so bad,” Hillman said, “sometimes, you think about squeezing in the first inning.”

Calling for squeeze plays in the first inning? When has that ever gotten a team out of an offensive slump? There are few things a manager can do tactically to get a team out of offensive doldrums; at the end of the day, the team has to hit its way out of it. The manager’s job in such situations is to instill confidence in his team and not to panic. That doesn’t mean you don’t shake things up to send a message (e.g. changing the lineup, promoting/demoting players), but there’s an art to knowing what to do and when to do it. I think a Major League manager’s main job is to stay out of the way and prevent the team from panicking. If a manager isn’t doing those things, it’s probably time for him to go. And, when Hillman began discussing putting on first-inning squeeze plays, he was getting in the way. He was panicking. And I knew the time had come for him to go; he was fired a few days later.

The Royals were 152-207 in two-plus seasons under Hillman. So, was he just a terrible manager? I think the only way to find out if a manager is any good is to have him manage a team with talent; if he is able to screw up a good team, then he’s probably a lousy manager. Of course, many managers never get an opportunity to manage a talented team, so we may never find out whether they’re any good. I’ve had several baseball people tell me that Buddy Bell (career record as a manager: 519-724) is a great manager but has never gotten a chance with a talented team, hence his poor results. I’ve also had several baseball people tell me that Bob Brenly (career record as a manager: 303-262) was an awful manager who got way too much credit – and a World Series ring – because he always had good players.

With coaches, it can be even trickier to determine whether they’re having an effect or not. Generally speaking, if he’s making players better, then that coach is effective. However, improvement is only a good measuring stick with younger players, since veteran players don’t have as much room for improvement. Also, the pitching coach is the only coach players – in this case, pitchers – have to work with. The infielders and outfielders don’t have to work with the infield and outfield coaches, respectively. The hitters don’t have to work with the hitting coach. Sometimes, the reason a player is struggling is because he isn’t listening to his specific coach, which can be the fault of the player or the fault of the coach or the fault of both; it’s really hard to know, even if you are around a team on a daily basis.

A lot of times with coaches, it comes down to getting to a player at the right time in his career. After several disappointing and injury-plagued seasons with the Royals, Alex Gordon has turned the corner in 2011 and is finally putting up great offensive numbers. Gordon has worked diligently with Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who certainly deserves some of the credit for Gordon’s success. But, if Seitzer had come across Gordon in his first Major League season, after Gordon had torn up college and the minor leagues, was maybe a little too cocky for his own good and had never suffered a serious injury, would they have worked as well together? Maybe not.

People often think baseball isn’t a “real” job, but it is. It’s a more glamorous job than most, but it’s still a job. And, in any job, success is the result of patience and hard work, but it’s also the result of timing and a little bit of luck. Baseball is no different. Ned Yost, Hillman’s replacement with the Royals, has had a more promising, more talented group of players with which to work than Hillman. There’s a chance Yost’s managerial record with Kansas City will end up looking a lot better than Hillman’s when all is said and done. If Yost does wind up having more success, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a better manager than Hillman. It will mean he had more to work with and joined the Royals at the right time.

Oh, remember Juan Samuel, the former coach for the hapless Detroit Tigers? After managing Binghamton for a year, he got back to the Majors in 2007 as the Baltimore Orioles third base and infield coach. He was with Baltimore for four seasons, even serving as interim manager last year; the Orioles lost over 90 games each year he was there. Now, Samuel is in his first year as the third base and infield coach for the Philadelphia Phillies, who have dominated the National League all season long. Samuel’s poised to get to the post-season for just the second time in his 28 seasons as a Major League player or coach; I guess the Phillies are winning in spite of him.

Read Full Post »

I didn’t recognize the number on my cell phone when it rang while my girlfriend and I were enjoying a romantic weekend together, but I answered anyway. On the other end was the Director of Broadcasting for a Major League Baseball team. I had sent him and most of the other Major League directors of broadcasting a CD with clips of my baseball play-by-play a couple of months prior, with the goal of getting noticed, getting feedback on my work and to find out if I was close to being a Major League-caliber broadcaster. After asking me if I had time to talk (I told him I did, as my girlfriend once again proved to be a good sport), the director of broadcasting offered his first comment on my play-by-play.

“You broadcast like you’re on TV.”

I was flabbergasted. While I’d gotten my share of constructive – and nonconstructive – criticism over the years, no one had ever told me I sounded like I was calling games as if the majority of those listening could also see the action. The director of broadcasting went onto say that I have to remember no one listening can see the pitch coming so I must mention that the pitch is being delivered every, single time one is thrown.
“Baseball is a rocking-chair sport,” he explained. “Listeners lean in when they know the pitch is coming and lean back once the play is over.”

We spoke for another hour or so about my demo, my career aspirations and play-by-play broadcasting in general. It proved to be the most productive conversation I’ve ever had with anyone about broadcasting and about my career. From then on, I always let the listener know when the pitch was being delivered, varying the description as much as possible (e.g. “the two-two”, “here’s the pitch”, “Johnson winds and delivers”, “Williams brings his hands together as he gets ready to throw the payoff pitch. Here it comes”). It was a difficult transition at first but, as time went on, I found my play-by-play rhythm and cadence improved thanks to this simple tweak. It’s like learning a complicated dance step – once I got it down, everything else seemed to fall into place. And, that’s why play-by-play is – a dance. The game is your dance partner and you have to move in concert and be on the same page. It’s important to remember that the game is the lead partner – what you focus on and call as a broadcaster depends on what’s happening in the game.

When I had this conversation with the director of broadcasting, I was five years into a solid play-by-play career. I’d spent one year doing minor league baseball play-by-play in Yakima, Washington, parlayed that into a position with a radio station in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I got the opportunity to call high school and small-college basketball and football in addition to independent minor baseball before making the rare jump from independent baseball to Double-A baseball in Binghamton, New York, with the Binghamton Mets. After two years in Binghamton, I was well regarded by my bosses and by the fans. I liked Binghamton, liked who I worked for and with, liked the low cost of living, liked that it was a three-hour drive from where I grew up in the Bronx, liked that I was calling games for an affiliate of my boyhood team, the New York Mets. I probably could stay in Binghamton for as long as I want. I’d never get rich there, but I could eventually make enough to live comfortably. At the time, though, I had bigger aspirations, which is why I’d sent copies of my play-by-play demo CD to Major League teams. More than anything, I wanted to get better.

I think the desire to get better is the most important trait a play-by-play broadcaster should have. That desire should be there if you have a high-profile network gig that pays you six figures or if you’re just starting out at a tiny radio station that has to power down its signal at night. And, make no mistake about it, every play-by-play broadcaster has room for improvement. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be comfortable with where you are in your career. You may be happy with how much you make, with the community in which you live, with the play-by-play assignments you get. But, you should always be looking to improve. I’ve always listened to other play-by-play broadcasters, picking up things from them that I can implement into my own play-by-play. By listening to other broadcasts, I also pick up on what not to do and what doesn’t sound great. I’ve asked others in the industry I respect to listen to my work and to give me feedback, like I did when I sent my demo CD to the director of broadcasting of nearly every Major League Baseball team. I’ve never settled for being good enough for where I am; I’ve always worked to be good enough to get a job anywhere.

More than two years after the conversation with the director of broadcasting, I made it to the Major Leagues, when I was hired by the Kansas City Royals’ flagship radio station to cover the Royals and host a pre- and post-game show. After being offered the job, I considered not taking it, since I wouldn’t be doing baseball play-by-play. Would I miss play-by-play? Could I survive a season (or more) of not calling games? I always enjoyed traveling with a team, but I wouldn’t get that opportunity in Kansas City, even though I would be at all the home games. How would that sit with me? After taking a step back and consulting with people in the business whom I trust, I realized that moving to Kansas City would mean a lack of baseball play-by-play for a little while, but it could be beneficial in the long run. After all, broadcasters rarely get Major League play-by-play jobs straight from the minors with no previous Major League experience. Covering the Royals would give me a chance to get exposure at the Major League level, which could only help. And, if worse came to worse, I could always return to the minors as a play-by-play broadcaster.

So, I took the job in Kansas City. And, 2 ½ years later, I know I made the right decision. I definitely miss doing baseball play-by-play. Although travel can be a grind and being at home every day with my 14-month-old daughter is a blessing, I definitely miss traveling with a baseball team. But, being in Kansas City has taught me another valuable career lesson: the need to see the big picture. In a field like broadcasting, it’s very easy to get tunnel vision, which prevents you from understanding that, sometimes, you have to do something different to give yourself a chance to get to where you want to be. I may never be a Major League play-by-play broadcaster, but working in Kansas City and covering the Royals has given me valuable contacts, knowledge and resources that will only help me as my career moves forward. While staying in Binghamton would’ve given me a chance to continue doing baseball play-by-play, my career wouldn’t have had the chance to progress as far as it has in Kansas City.

People often ask me what’s next in my career and, frankly, I don’t have a good answer for that question. I know I want to eventually get back into baseball play-by-play but, for the first time since I arrived in Kansas City, I’m at peace with not knowing when that will be. What I do know is I’m enjoying what I’m doing now and that me and my family love calling Kansas City home. I also know that I’ve worked hard to get where I am and that I’ll continue to do so; as long as that’s the case, the opportunities will take care of themselves.

Read Full Post »

About a decade ago, I went to an independent movie theater in New York City to watch Go Tigers!, a documentary about the people of Massillon, Ohio and their obsession with their high school football team. I thought the film was well done and an interesting look into why anyone would care so much – in many instances, too much – about the exploits of teenagers on the gridiron. Go Tigers! opens in, of all places, a hospital. A woman, who has just given birth to a boy, is visited by a Massillon football coach and a member of the team’s booster club. After some idle chit-chat with the post-partum patient, the coach and the booster put a miniature football at the foot of the infant boy’s crib. We then learn that every newborn baby boy in Massillon gets a similar visit and a gift of a miniature football. How could you place such expectations on every boy – and the parents of every boy – in your town, I thought. Children should be allowed to discover sports organically, that way they’ll only play or watch if they truly love the game.

In June, 2010, my girlfriend and I welcomed Elena into our lives. The first child for both of us, we were excited to meet the young lady who’d been hanging out in my girlfriend’s womb for over nine months (Elena apparently enjoyed that womb immensely – labor had to be induced to coax her from her cocoon). Now, at almost 14 months old, we’re still learning about Elena’s personality and her likes and dislikes, a process that will continue for as long as we’re alive. We’re also getting a better idea of how Elena will look as she gets older. Her height and weight, relative to her age, have been in the highest percentiles since she was born. One of the delivery room nurses mentioned that Elena’s femur, or thigh bone, was longer than the average newborn’s, which means she will likely be tall. Myself and many others have noticed that Elena’s feet are rather big in proportion to the rest of her body. So, preliminary signs point to Elena developing into a tall female. Elena also sucked the thumb on both her left and right hands her first few months, causing my girlfriend and I wonder if Elena is ambidextrous (now she rarely sucks her thumb and, when she does, it’s almost always the right thumb). Elena was just two months old when I sent the following text message to one of my friends:

“I’m going to have to teach her how to dribble and shoot with both hands.”

I was half-joking. But, I started to wonder, how serious was my other half? Was I already placing unreasonable expectations on her? Whatever happened to letting my child’s interest in sports develop organically? She may not even like sports, let alone basketball.

That last thought bothered me the most. I love sports. Heck, I talk about sports for a living. How in the world could I possibly have a child who doesn’t like sports? As she grows up, I want Elena to enjoy reading.  I want her to be interested in and cognizant of the world around her. I want her to be respectful of others and to always say “please” and “thank you” at the appropriate times. I want her to speak clearly and confidently. But, I also want her to enjoy sports. I want her to play sports, preferably ones I know well, like basketball, or baseball, or softball, so I can teach her the fundamentals and basic ins and outs of the game. The title of this post is derived from something I recently told my girlfriend; I don’t want my daughter to throw like a stereotypical girl. I want to teach Elena how to properly cock her arm back, elbow up, and throw a ball straight and with the proper amount of strength. I want her to enjoy watching sports, preferably sports I enjoy, like baseball, basketball and football. I want us to be able to share sports and to be able to talk about sports, just like I did – and still do – with my parents.

The fact Elena is a female doesn’t change my desire for her to like sports one bit. My mother is a big fan of the NBA and of tennis, capable of breaking the strengths and weaknesses of players and teams down to the smallest detail. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve my mother and basketball – watching the New York Knicks’ deep playoff runs in the early 90s, going to Knicks and New Jersey Nets games at Madison Square Garden and Continental Airlines Arena, respectively. I’ve also been the play-by-play voice for a few different women’s college basketball teams. Getting to know the female players and mostly female coaches on a personal level and watching them perform up close has given me a tremendous appreciation of the skill and artistry possessed by females in athletics. I also know women are capable of being talented athletes and/or avid sports fans while retaining their femininity, if they so choose. So, the idea that Elena is given a pass regarding sports because of her gender doesn’t wash with me.

Although my girlfriend has gotten more interested in and become more knowledgeable about sports in our nearly five years together – largely because she’s with someone whose personal and professional life revolves around them – she didn’t play sports growing up and readily concedes she’s unathletic. As a result, fairly or unfairly, I’ve placed the burden of molding Elena into a sports lover squarely on my shoulders. However, I don’t want to be overbearing. Many people are turned off by specific sports or by sports in general because they were force-fed them growing up, definitely a fate I don’t want Elena to suffer. So, how can I strike the right balance?

Recently, I discovered Elena likes my basketball. One day, I put it in her lap while she was in her car seat. She carefully ran her tiny fingers along its grainy texture and succeeded in pushing it with both hands. One day at the park, I gave her the basketball, sat across from her and tried to get her to roll it to me. Elena didn’t quite understand what I wanted her to do, choosing to keep the ball instead. I’m going to get her a smaller ball that may be easier for her to roll and work on getting her to push it back and forth with me. Once she masters that and also masters walking, maybe I’ll try to get her to bounce the ball with two hands, and then with one hand.

Since I work most evenings, I’m rarely home to put Elena to bed. My girlfriend usually sings a song to Elena as she lays her down in her crib and she recently wondered why I didn’t do the same the handful of nights I put her down. The only song I could think of that a) is appropriate to sing to a baby, b) I know all of the words to and c) I can sing reasonably well with my terrible singing voice is Take Me Out to the Ballgame, the baseball standard. After I read her a bedtime story, I begin singing as I pick her up and continue the song once I put her down, usually singing it twice. I even got Elena a children’s book that includes the words to the entire song (Take Me Out to the Ballgame actually has two verses and a chorus; the part that’s usually sung – and the part I’ve been singing to Elena – is the chorus). I really hope it’s one of the first songs she learns all of the words to and is able to sing herself.

By exposing her to a basketball and to Take Me Out to the Ballgame, I’m slowly indoctrinating Elena into the world of sports. How much more I intentionally expose her to will depend on how her interests develop. Maybe she’ll never appreciate sports in the same fashion I do, but I want her to understand how important sports are to me and that they can be fun to play and follow. One day, she may fall asleep with a football (or a baseball, basketball, tennis ball or volleyball) at the foot of her bed; I just don’t want to be the one who forced her to put it there.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »