A 9/11 Story

When you’re a New Yorker, you get used to subway disruptions. There’s always track work, or signal work, or a police investigation, or station renovations that lead to the express running local, or the local running express, or lines being rerouted. It can be frustrating, but we accept these disruptions as a way of life in a city with one of the largest, and one of the oldest, subway systems in the world, especially since they usually don’t occur during rush hour.

On this day, there were a level of disruptions unlike any I’d ever witnessed. Walking into the Rockefeller Center subway station, one of the busiest in the city, I was greeted by a constant stream of announcements over the public address system that were never ending. Not only were the World Trade Center, & the surrounding area, a financial hub, but it was also a subway hub; several lines ran in or near the area. And, the Twin Towers attacked & reduced to rubble, mass chaos ensued on the subway, just like it did elsewhere.

I was in my third month working for the New York City bureau of The Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper. I was their sports reporter, which meant I mostly did research & arranged for interviews & accommodations for my direct supervisor, a sportswriter for the paper who, unlike me, was fluent in Japanese. I also got to cover a handful of events myself. Of course, it didn’t matter what subject you reported on today; everyone in media were focused on the World Trade Center. That morning, arriving minutes after the first plane hit, & minutes before the second plane hit, I did everything from converting the heights of the world’s tallest buildings from feet to meters to making phone calls to airports & hospitals (I was greeted by a busy signal every single time). Both my mom & dad called to check on me; I told them I was okay, & I didn’t know when I’d be leaving work.

I think it was early in the afternoon when I was told to take a call from David who, like me, was an American reporter for the paper not too far removed from college. We had different direct supervisors, but similar responsibilities. David lived near the World Trade Center &, on his way to work, realized something was happening. Being the smart reporter he is, David decided to remain on the scene rather than go to the office, calling in with live updates, taking pictures with his 35-millimeter camera & interviewing people on the scene. He had a roll of film he wanted to get to the office; but with the authorities closing off most of Lower Manhattan, he didn’t want to make his way north & risk losing his spot embedded in one of the most significant stories in history. Which is why I was told to take his call. There was a teenage boy David was going to use as his film messenger. I was to go as far south as I could, call David with my location, & this impromptu messenger would bring the film to me. Hopefully. David said he was going to give him $40.

After navigating the subway dysfunction, I got off at West 4th Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village, one of my favorite neighborhoods. My mom started taking me to The Village as a child. I had plenty of meals at the Pizzeria Uno across the street from the subway entrance. I did a lot of homework at the library a few blocks north which, at one time, had a bookstore across the street, where my mom once took me so she could meet author Terry McMillan, who had just come out with a book called Waiting to Exhale. When I emerged aboveground, I was expecting to see the usual bustle of pedestrians shuffling along the sidewalks & cars speeding along Avenue of the Americas. However, I was greeted by silence. Only emergency vehicles were allowed south of 14th Street, so there were no cars on the street, which was filled with people. Few were walking briskly to their destination; instead, almost everyone was looking south, where two plumes of smoke were plainly visible on this clear & sunny day. It was as quiet as I’ve ever heard The Village. There were looks of shock, & occasional sounds of sniffling. It was my first look at the destruction on something other than a television screen, so I stood there too, mesmerized not just by the smoke, but also by the unusual silence. This isn’t a bad dream, I thought. This is really happening.

I made my way through the crowd & resumed my voyage south, which I realized was fruitless; there were barricades everywhere &, unless you could prove you were a resident of the blocked off area, no one was allowed through. David had given me few details about his location, but I knew he was west, so I headed in that direction until I got to the appropriately named West Street, the last street before the Hudson River. I noticed a shuttered strip club at one corner, so I stood there, since I figured it would be an easily identifiable landmark. I called David. The kid bringing me the film was named Peter, or Michael, or something else just as common, David told me. He described the kid’s appearance, & what he was wearing. David said he was on his way. Hopefully.

I stood there for about an hour before someone matching the description David passed along spotted me. He handed me the film. I shook his hand, & thanked him. I asked him if he needed anything, not sure what I could help him with. He was fine, he said. On my walk back to the subway station, I called David, & told him that his messenger had showed. I never did see the pictures, which was fine by me.

October 6th, 2015

Sometimes, I pinch myself. Figuratively though, never literally. Fifteen years ago, I sat in the ballpark across the street and called a Red Sox-Yankees game into my tape recorder. The game was sold out; I rested my scorebook and notes on my right thigh and the tape recorder on my left thigh all while trying not to invade the personal space of those sitting next to me. A good chunk of my play-by-play from that game – Luis Sojo hit a walkoff RBI single in the bottom of ninth off Rod Beck to win it for the Yankees – wound up on my first baseball demo tape. That tape landed me my first baseball play-by-play job. Fifteen years later, I’m on the opposite side of 161st Street at the new Yankee Stadium, eight subway stops from where I grew up, being paid to call a playoff game featuring my surprising Houston Astros squad against the New York Yankees. Sure, it’s “just” a winner-take-all American League Wild Card Game but, in many ways, that raises the stakes. In a seven- or five-game series, losing the first game isn’t the end. However, losing the Wild Card Game is the end. Play six months to get into the postseason and it could be gone – Poof! – after one game, in which anything can happen; if you lose, it’s almost like you were never in the playoffs, the moment so fleeting.

The first pitch from Masahiro Tanaka to Jose Altuve is a ball.

*          *          *

The 2015 season is my 14th year broadcasting baseball – seven years in the minors, seven in the Majors, a play-by-play guy in 10 of those seasons – and I’ve never been involved in a postseason game. As a matter of fact, in only one of the previous 13 seasons had a team I covered finished over .500; the 2004 Kalamazoo Kings of the independent Frontier League. The Kings were in the playoff hunt until the season’s final week. The next year, the Kings won the league title, but I wasn’t there to see it; I’d moved on to the Binghamton Mets of the Double-A Eastern League by then. The B-Mets were in the playoff hunt until the season’s final day in 2006, but they split a doubleheader on that day to finish 70-70 & out of the playoffs.

What I learned this year was that, in the playoffs, the waiting is the hardest part. And the Astros had to wait longer than most to find out what was next for them. Going into the final day of the season on Sunday, there were four possible scenarios involving potential playoff or tiebreaker games in three different cities. After that day’s games concluded, the Astros were locked into the Wild Card Game in New York in two days, on Tuesday. Which meant a cross-country flight from Phoenix, arriving in New York – our third city on what was now at least a 9-day road trip – in the wee hours of Monday morning with a game scheduled for shortly after 8 pm local time on Tuesday. Being exhausted and sleeping through much of Monday morning did make the waiting any easier.

*          *          *

I was in the restroom when I heard it.

Colby Rasmus homered leading off the top of the second, a high, majestic shot to right; that appeared to be more than enough run support for Astros ace, and Yankees killer, Dallas Keuchel. I took my customary break when the top of the fourth inning began, turning the play-by-play over to Steve Sparks – my broadcast partner – which always mean a stop at the facilities. I’d just parked at a urinal when I heard the smooth, but booming, voice of Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling over the restroom speakers announce that Carlos Gomez hit Tanaka’s first pitch of the fourth for a home run. Astros 2, Yankees 0. I’ve been in baseball long enough to know the game isn’t won until the last out is recorded, but I was confident the Astros were going to advance.

*          *          *

I woke up Tuesday morning feeling refreshed. The off-day Monday was needed to get over the grogginess associated with a late cross-country flight from Phoenix and to recharge my batteries after a 162-game regular season which included tension-filled games for most of the season’s final month. Monday was a great day to relax, go for a long walk & visit some friends & relatives in my hometown. Tuesday, it was time to get down to business.

I huddled at the desk in front of my laptop & iPad much of the morning. I updated my notes on the Yankees & made sure I had all the information I needed & wanted. Notes on the Astros’ postseason history and regular-season history against the Yankees were typed. This was my first time preparing for a playoff game, so I was learning as I went. Sure, I’d prepared for plenty of regular-season games, but this was different. How much work should I do for just one game? What information do I absolutely need & what information can be put on the back burner? By the time I closed my laptop & iPad, I felt pretty good about my preparation. I never get nervous for a broadcast if I know I’m prepared. I wasn’t nervous.

*          *          *

A two-run lead with Dallas Keuchel on the mound against the Yankees felt like a 10-run lead. Keuchel – who hadn’t allowed a run to the Yankees in the regular season – didn’t even allow many hard-hit outs. Alex Rodriguez did punish a pitch that George Springer ran down in the rightfield corner. The three hits Keuchel allowed – all singles – were harmless. He walked Astros nemesis Chris Young in the first inning, but that was the only free pass Keuchel allowed. The Astros got Keuchel another run in the seventh, when Jose Altuve poked a low-and-away pitch – a pitcher’s pitch – from Yankees reliever Dellin Betances into leftfield, scoring Jonathan Villar from second base. Keuchel handed a 3-0 lead to the bullpen – good most of the year, but shaky in September – when he departed after six innings.

*          *          *

I really wanted Caribbean food.

Houston is a great city with fantastic restaurants & plenty of ethnic food options, but finding good Caribbean food has proven to be difficult. Since moving to Houston, I’d heard of one Puerto Rican restaurant, which I tried & found lacking. Another Jamaican restaurant I read about on the Internet wasn’t up to snuff, at least not to me. A second Jamaican restaurant recommended to me by a friend had proven to be the real deal. So, Houston was 1 for 3 in the Caribbean restaurant department – a great ratio for a hitter, but not for my taste buds.

Growing up in the Bronx in a neighborhood filled with people from all over the Caribbean, I developed an appreciation for their food & culture. And I was confident I’d be able to find a good Caribbean restaurant near my Midtown Manhattan hotel for lunch before heading to Yankee Stadium for the game. A search on Yelp turned up a Puerto Rican restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen across town. Probably a 15-minute cab ride. Google Maps said it was a 30-minute walk. I was confident I could walk there in 20 minutes.

*          *          *

I felt a sense of calm when I saw Tony Sipp enter the game from the bullpen for the bottom of the seventh. The southpaw finished the regular season strong & matched up well against a Yankees lineup laden with lefthanded hitters and switch hitters. My calm was justified when Sipp worked around a one-out walk to Chase Headley, retiring the other three Yankees he faced in the inning. I was thrilled to see Will Harris enter the game in the eighth. Harris would’ve probably started the year in the minor leagues if it hadn’t been for injuries to other pitchers, but he never saw the minors in 2015, pitching well all year & earning the right to be the eighth-inning setup man in a winner-take-all playoff game. The Yankees went down in order against Harris, the ball not leaving the infield.

One more inning.

*          *          *

I haven’t been a full-time resident of New York City in over 13 years. Yet, getting back into The City’s routine, the hustle & bustle, is never an adjustment for me. As a matter of fact, I look forward to it. The streets were packed, as they always are around lunchtime in Midtown Manhattan. Office workers flood outside in the afternoons, seeking food. Many use their afternoon lunch breaks to smoke a cigarette or two, either in front of their office building or on their way to & from lunch (New York City has the most stringent non-smoking laws in the country, & public sidewalks are just about the only place where it’s legal to smoke outside of one’s private residence. For now).

The City’s geography is always in my head as I traverse Manhattan. For a New Yorker, memorizing the north-south avenues in order is tantamount to knowing your multiplication tables. The Puerto Rican restaurant was on 51st Street, between 9th & 10th Avenues. I left the Astros’ hotel, on 42nd Street, just east of Third Avenue, & quickly made my way to Lexington Avenue, before briskly walking uptown. I use the traffic lights to determine my moves. A red light at 44th Street meant making a left turn & walking west to Park Avenue, where I barely made the light before a red at Madison Avenue forced me back uptown. I made it through the pedestrian plaza that’s become Times Square before shooting up 8th Avenue for a few blocks. Construction on 9th Avenue forced me uptown again. I finally made it to 51st Street, a residential block with one storefront – the Puerto Rican restaurant. The beautiful fall weather meant my walk across town at light speed didn’t cause me to break a sweat or to be out of breath.

*          *          *

Yankees closer Andrew Miller was his usual dominant self in the top of the ninth, retiring the Astros on a harmless fly ball & two strikeouts. As Astros closer Luke Gregerson made his way from the visitor’s bullpen to the mound, the Yankee Stadium crowd was trying to summon up the strength to cheer their team to a rally, but it was obvious their heart wasn’t in it. Sparks pulled out the t-shirt & shorts he wore when he covered the Astros’ Champagne-fueled celebration from the clubhouse in Phoenix just two days prior; it was his job to get post-game interviews with players & coaches during every Astros clinching celebration. I’d just gotten back on the air when Sparks motioned to me that he was heading downstairs to prepare for another postgame party.

*          *          *

I stood behind four other patrons waiting to place their order; there was barely enough room for the short line. The restaurant was dominated by the kitchen & food prep area on the right. On the left was a narrow area with three sets of tables & chairs. One table was occupied by two women who were finishing their lunch. It quickly became obvious I was the only person in the restaurant who wasn’t fluent in Spanish. I felt right at home.

I was in line for a few minutes when a restaurant employee approached me.

“You eat here?” He asked me in a thick accent.

“Yes, I’m going to have lunch here. Not to go.”

“Sit! Sit!” He implored, waving toward a table. “I take care of you. Gimme 5 minutes. You want soda?”

I answered in the affirmative as I followed his instructions. Five minutes later, he asked me what I wanted to eat. I never saw a menu, but I didn’t need one. I settled on baked chicken with yellow rice (arroz con pollo) with plantains. “Maduros,” I told him, meaning I wanted the soft, sweet plantains, rather than the hard, salty ones. The food came quickly & in the large portions typical of a Caribbean restaurant. When I finished, I walked to the counter, which separated me from a short, raven-haired woman. After glancing at the chicken bones & stray pieces of rice remaining on my plate, she asked me if I had a soda. I told her I had. “Eight dollars,” she said. An eight dollar lunch in Manhattan? It’s a miracle!

The walk back to the hotel was a little longer than the walk to the restaurant. A full stomach will do that to you.

*          *          *

When he was with the Astros in 2004, Carlos Beltran turned in one of the greatest postseason performances in baseball history. However, he spurned the Astros for the Mets in free agency that winter & many Astros fans still boo him whenever he returns to Minute Maid Park. So, I’m sure many Astros fans took an extra bit of satisfaction in seeing him strike out swinging to begin the bottom of the ninth. The next hitter, Rodriguez, also struck out.

One out remaining.

*          *          *

I always try to take a 20-30 minute nap before I head to the ballpark. Even if I just close my eyes & don’t fall asleep, I feel refreshed & am less likely to get tired later in the day. Given how excited I was, it was a little surprising to me that I was able to doze off so easily after I slipped out of my shoes, packed my briefcase, fluffed up two pillows & laid face up on top of the bedspread.

Whenever I wake up from my early afternoon naps, I’m like a bucking bronco when the gate opens, & today was no exception. I bolted out of bed, quickly slipped on my shoes & grabbed my briefcase before storming out of the hotel room. After checking out at the front desk, I expertly wheeled my briefcase through the endless pedestrian traffic on my way to the subway station. I happened to arrive on the platform just as the 4 train was entering the station, which, to many New Yorkers, is tantamount to winning the lottery.

After arriving at my stop, I briskly walked to Yankee Stadium. I couldn’t wait to unpack, get settled in & to start my day.

*          *          *

One of the things I love about doing play-by-play is the unpredictability & spontaneity; you never know what you’re going to see & you usually don’t know exactly how you’re going to call something until it happens. I rarely think about what I’m going to say before it comes out of my mouth. Even when I give speeches, I never write them down verbatim; maybe I’ll jot down some brief notes or bullet points if I write anything down at all. However, when the final out was recorded, I knew exactly what I was going to say long before I said it, a rarity for me.

I’d been thinking about Frank Sinatra’s version of “Theme from New York, New York,” which is played after every Yankees home game, win or lose. I used to work in Kansas City, where I covered the Royals; after their wins, they play Wilbert Harrison’s version of “Kansas City” at Kauffman Stadium. The winner of this game was going to play the Royals in the American League Division Series, with the first two games in Kansas City. If the Astros won, I knew what I wanted to say, & it would incorporate elements from both songs.

Brian McCann stood in for the Yankees, their final chance to extend the game. The drama was quickly extinguished when Gregerson got him to swing at the first pitch.

“Ground ball, right into the shift! Fielded by Correa to the left of second. Throws to first, in time! And that is the ball game! Start spreadin’ the news, the Houston Astros win the AL Wild Card Game, beating the New York Yankees three to nothing! Kansas City, here they come!”

A perfect ending to a perfect day.

Can’t Knock The Hustle

I’d just gotten back to my car after one of my first deliveries of the day when my phone rang. It was the Sports Information Director at The College of St. Rose, a Division II school in Albany. Thankfully, I’d already put on my seat belt because I almost leapt out of my chair. A few days prior, I’d heard that St. Rose’s basketball broadcaster accepted a broadcasting gig elsewhere, so I called the athletic director and left a voicemail. The college basketball season was starting soon, and I figured St. Rose had already pegged someone to do their games. There’s no harm in calling them, I reasoned, because I might get lucky.

And get lucky I did. By the time the SID called, St. Rose’s first game was a week and a half away. It was a beautiful fall Saturday in Binghamton, where I’d wrapped up my first season as the broadcaster for the Binghamton Mets two months prior. Could you overnight your résumé and demo CD to us on Monday? the SID asked. Of course I can! Anything would be better than using copious amounts of Febreze in an attempt to eradicate the sickening stale pizza smell that permeated my car after every one of my delivery shifts. The Binghamton Mets hired me seasonally, so I needed to find a way to make money from Labor Day until April. In mid-September, I took a job delivering pizza, which paid well, but was the definition of tedious.

A couple of days after overnighting my stuff to St. Rose, I made the two-hour drive to Albany for an interview. St. Rose hired me on a Sunday night. Their first game was Tuesday. Like many Division II schools, St. Rose played men’s and women’s basketball doubleheaders, with the women’s game starting at 5 pm – or 1 pm for afternoon contests – followed by the men’s game. I’d also agreed to call 1-2 high school basketball games a week for a small radio station in Sidney, a rural town 45 minutes northeast of Binghamton. That winter, I became intimately familiar with Interstate 88, which runs through Sidney and terminates in Albany. The radio station in Sidney covered five area high schools and they let me make my own schedule, which dovetailed nicely with St. Rose’s; the college games were usually on Wednesdays and Saturdays and the high school games were Tuesdays and Fridays. If St. Rose had road games, I would hop on the team bus once I got to Albany and travel another 2-4 hours with the teams, call two basketball games, get back on the bus for another 2-4 hours and then drive the two hours back to Binghamton in the wee hours of the morning. Upstate New York winters can be pretty harsh but, amazingly, I only had to drive through one snowstorm that season. All for $200 and a chance to call my second-favorite sport, after baseball. It’s a good thing I love hoops, because I ended up calling 75 basketball games that winter. My car died a few months later.

*          *          *

“What do you do in the off-season?” is one of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked in my baseball broadcasting career. The baseball season is a grind; games every day for 5-7 months, depending on whether you’re in the Majors or minors and whether or not you call spring training action. Every baseball broadcaster needs a break after a season but, for many, that break is very short, if there’s a break at all. Seasonal employment, like I had with the Binghamton Mets, was the rule for most of my baseball broadcasting career. As a result, I had to find employment at the conclusion of each baseball season.

My first baseball off-season was in Yakima, Washington after calling games for the Yakima Bears of the short-season Northwest League. I hung around Central Washington to work as an account executive for the Yakima Sun Kings, a minor league basketball team that played in the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association. And I was miserable. For one, I’d hoped to land a job calling football and/or basketball, but I wasn’t as aggressive when it came to pursuing those opportunities as I should’ve been. And, I realized quickly I wasn’t cut out to be an account executive. It didn’t help that the degree of difficulty selling the Sun Kings for a novice account executive was high. The Sun Kings, like the rest of the CBA, folded two years prior before being reborn the previous year. Yakima sat out the first season of the new CBA before returning under new ownership when I came aboard. There were many people who lost money with the old Sun Kings and many of those people took out their frustrations on me. Plus, as I mentioned, I wasn’t cut out to be an account executive; cold-calling and going in and out of businesses to persuade people to spend money with the team just wasn’t my thing (It probably doesn’t help that I’m not a big fan of salespeople selling me things unsolicited. I’m the guy who, when he’s in the store or on the showroom floor, politely declines assistance and grimaces at salespeople who come at him with their huge smiles and mindless small talk. If I need you, I’ll find you. Otherwise, leave me alone). Nearly every day I worked for the Sun Kings, I woke up with a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, dreading spending another day trying to convince people to buy courtside signs and group tickets. I contemplated quitting daily and, on one occasion, cleaned out my desk in anticipation of walking before changing my mind. Stick it out until you get another job, I told myself.

You can imagine my relief when, after five months of misery, I was hired by a radio station group in Kalamazoo, Michigan as the voice of the Kalamazoo Kings of the independent Frontier League. I didn’t have to start my new job for another two months, but I was so eager to rid myself of my account executive existence that I loaded up my car and drove cross-country to New York City, my hometown, as quickly as I could. I was much happier back home, where I spent two months teaching SAT prep courses on Long Island before heading to Michigan. That awful feeling in the pit of my stomach disappeared and hasn’t returned since. After initially being hired in Kalamazoo just for baseball season, I wound up getting a full-time position, ending my need to scramble for off-season employment. Instead, I slid right into radio news reporting and anchoring and broadcasting high school and Division III college football and basketball once the Kings’ season drew to a close.

You would think I would’ve learned from my Yakima experience when I left Kalamazoo after two years for the seasonal position with the Binghamton Mets. However, I waited until August to seek off-season work and found myself scrambling to find something with little time left, which is how I ended up handing people boxes filled with warm pizza for two months. The following off-season, I planned on returning to The College of St. Rose, but I was able to land the women’s basketball play-by-play job at Binghamton University, which was Division I, as opposed to Division II, and a 15-minute drive from my home, as opposed to a two-hour drive. Needless to say, the switch was a no-brainer. That off-season, I also got back into officiating basketball, which I’d done in Yakima, and I started substitute teaching. I wasn’t exactly living like a king, but I did okay for a single guy with few obligations.

After four years in Binghamton, I was hired by the Kansas City Royals’ flagship radio station to be their Royals reporter and pre- and post-game show host, the latter show featuring phone calls from fans. Once again, I was a seasonal employee but I’d learned from my earlier follies. In the middle of the summer, I contacted every school within a three-hour drive of Kansas City that sponsored intercollegiate athletics and let them know I was available to call basketball games if the need arose. The most serious inquiry I received was from the University of Nebraska Omaha, a Division II school three hours away. Nebraska Omaha needed someone to broadcast their men’s and women’s basketball doubleheaders because their previous broadcaster recently accepted a position that made it difficult for him to call all of the games. However, Nebraska Omaha’s SID hedged on completely handing the reins to me, saying he could guarantee me all of the road broadcasts, but nothing else. Since I wisely left the door open with Binghamton University when I departed for Kansas City, I passed on Nebraska Omaha’s offer and returned to Binghamton to call women’s basketball that fall and winter before going back to Kansas City in the spring. The following off-season, Nebraska Omaha offered me their full-time basketball broadcasting position. I gladly accepted, calling their games for three seasons, which included the first two years of their transition to Division I. As a matter of fact, I was finally hired full-time by the Royals’ flagship station my final year calling Nebraska Omaha’s games, but I was able to make the schedules work, just like I did with my St. Rose and high school basketball schedules in Binghamton many years prior.

 *          *          *

The day I agreed to terms with the Houston Astros to be their radio broadcaster, I no longer had to seek employment during the baseball off-season. The Astros compensate me year-round, which means seven months of baseball followed by five months of inactivity, if I so choose. For the first time in my life, I don’t have to call other sports, or deliver pizza, or substitute teach, in the fall and winter. I would like to call basketball and/or football again, but I won’t starve if I don’t. In short, I’m blessed. And, after years of hustling for work once baseball season ended, not a day goes by in the off-season when I don’t think about how fortunate I am.

Years ago, I watched an interview of Bill Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft, where he mentioned that, every few months or so, he takes a “reading vacation”; he’ll hole up in some remote locale for a couple of weeks and read all of the books he hasn’t been able to get to. My off-season these days isn’t exactly a reading vacation, but I have more time for books. I finally read Wherever I Wind Up, the autobiography of Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey, which was outstanding. I just finished Bleeding Orange, the new autobiography authored by Jim Boeheim, longtime basketball coach at Syracuse University, my alma mater. I recently ordered You Can’t Make This Up, the new autobiography of legendary broadcaster Al Michaels. As you can probably tell, I love non-fiction in general and autobiographies in particular. However, the best book I’ve read this off-season was Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s outstanding novel that’s been turned into a movie. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but there’s no way it can captivate as well as the book, but isn’t that always the case?

When the weather cooperates, I try to bike at least 20 miles a day; I bike during the season, but I can get in more reps when there aren’t any games. I also like going out for lunch; since I spend so much time at home alone during the day, it’s nice to be around other people, even if I’m not communicating with them. I also get to reacquaint myself with my four-year-old daughter, time I really treasure since we don’t get to spend copious amounts of time together during the season. Once November and December arrive, I start prepping for the upcoming baseball season. By beginning my prep early in the off-season, I can work gradually all winter and have a lot of work done before spring training begins, giving me an opportunity to focus on other things and preventing me from being burned out once it’s time to call games.

More than anything, I use the off-season to decompress and to recharge my batteries. By the time I leave for spring training, I’m excited about a new season and ready to get to work. And I’m thankful for all of the work that I’ve done and jobs that I’ve had – in baseball, broadcasting and otherwise – that have helped me get to this point.

Reliving The Strike

The last baseball game I attended before the strike was at Yankee Stadium. Me and my co-workers for the summer were given complimentary tickets, along with several other youth and teen groups, in the left-centerfield bleachers. I defiantly wore my Mets hat to the game, which pitted the Yankees against the Baltimore Orioles. Wearing the hat of New York’s National League team proved to be the right move, since former Mets centerfielder Tommie Agee was in attendance, signing autographs in the bleachers; his appearance was part of the program that allowed us to get into The House That Ruth Built gratis. I still have that hat, which Agee signed on the green underside of the bill.

Back then, I lived for baseball. Well, I still live for baseball – make my living in baseball, even – but, in those days, I was obsessed. Every winter, I’d suffer through pangs of withdrawal because there wasn’t any baseball on television; I’d scour Sports Illustrated for any blurb or mention of the National Pastime. I eagerly anticipated the Mets’ first spring training game, which was always televised on WWOR TV. I loved WWOR’s spring training open – which featured a wooden crate filled with oranges that would be hammered shut and, after a time lapse, reopened to reveal that the oranges had turned into baseballs – not only because it was pure genius, but also because it signaled that another baseball season was around the corner.

But now, there was a possibility that the baseball off-season would be longer than ever. The team owners and the players’ union were at an impasse in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement and a strike was imminent. None of the so-called experts seemed to think the strike would be brief, although no one had any idea how long it would last. A few weeks? A few months? Into the postseason? Into the following season? Anything seemed to be possible except, of course, a quick resolution.

The strike deadline set by the players was four days away and in the back of my mind as I watched former Mets pitcher Sid Fernandez staked to an early 4-0 lead, only to leave in the sixth with the score tied. I was sitting behind the Orioles bullpen and just missed getting the baseball reliever Jim Poole tossed into the crowd when he entered the game in the 10th. Mark Eichhorn, who had been warming up alongside Poole, teased and tantalized the fans who asked him for a ball; it seemed like poetic justice when Eichhorn gave up Randy Velarde’s walk-off RBI single in the 11th to lose the game for Baltimore.

Three days later, when I turned on my green-and-white radio on August 11th, 1994 to listen to the Mets play in Philadelphia (the game was televised on SportsChannel, and Mom had yet to sign us up for cable television), I was hoping the game lasted forever. It didn’t, but it came close; Ricky Jordan’s walk-off RBI single in the 15th won it for the Phillies. And I turned off my radio and wondered when I’d get to hear Major League Baseball again.

I finished the month at a summer camp in western Massachusetts, where I spent a week and a half canoeing, hiking and pitching tents in the wilderness. We were only allowed to shower every few days and there was no access to television or radio. Occasionally, our travels through the Berkshires and Adirondacks would take us by a newsstand or a newspaper vending machine, which would lead me to check the front page of the paper to see if the strike had been resolved. And, in every instance, there was a front-page headline about the strike. And, in every instance, that front-page headline indicated that the players were still on the picket line. Chris, a Chicago White Sox fan who served as my camp group’s counselor that summer before resuming his studies at a small, liberal-arts college in Minnesota in the fall, picked up on my routine. “Anything?” he would ask, after he saw me peek at newsprint. I’d shake my head. Nothing needed to be said.

The routines and rhythms of my sophomore year of high school helped pass the time, but the strike was never far from my mind. Those of us who are baseball crazed tend to gravitate to other seam heads, and it was all we talked about. I mean, it was all we could talk about, since the strike eliminated typical fall conversations about the postseason – which wound up being cancelled – and free agency. None of us really understood all of the issues at play; we were just hopeless baseball romantics hoping and praying that our beau would return post haste.

I had Biology class with Jonah Parsoff, who loved baseball almost as much as I did. Almost. Jonah also claimed to know more baseball trivia than me, which simply wasn’t possible. So, I offered Jonah a challenge: I would give him five baseball trivia questions every day and I guaranteed he would never get all five of them correct. So, for about two months, I spent the first few minutes of Biology writing trivia questions on a piece of loose-leaf paper, which I would covertly pass to Jonah in the front of the class (I always sat in the back of all of my classes, much to my mother’s chagrin. “You wear glasses” she would ask, “why are you sitting in the back?”). Jonah would attempt to answer my questions and slip the paper back to me. I don’t think he ever got more than three right; I know he never went five for five. I took delight in Jonah throwing his head back in frustration once I gave him the correct answers – a gesture that would prompt Mr. Young, our Biology teacher, to ask “Jonah, is something wrong?” mid-lecture. And, thus, my place atop the baseball-trivia throne was secure.

While I spent most of my time in Biology goofing off, I took Global Studies seriously; I always took great interest in history, which was partially responsible for my love of baseball trivia. However, I was convinced that my teacher, Mrs. Goodman, was assigning us papers at an insane rate that was unprecedented in the annals of high school history. However, I had little issue with one assignment from Mrs. Goodman that allowed us to write a 5-page paper on a current event selected from a pre-approved list when I saw that the list included the baseball strike. I immediately set to work on my masterpiece, in which detailed the follies of both the owners and the players’ union. My heartfelt missive earned me an A, and some unexpected praise from Mrs. Goodman; she told me I was an excellent writer and I should consider working for my high school’s monthly newspaper. I never thought of myself as an above-average writer and seeing my byline in print never occurred to me. But wouldn’t it be cool to write about sports? I thought to myself. And, after approaching one of the sports editors, I became a full-fledged sports journalist, penning important pieces on weighty topics – like the upcoming cross-country season – much to the delight of readers everywhere. At least that’s what I told myself.

My Pulitzer still hadn’t arrived in early March, when Dad and I plopped in front of the television to watch the Mets’ first spring training game, against the Yankees. Except it wasn’t the Mets, at least not the Mets with which we were familiar. The broadcast on WWOR opened with Ralph Kiner and Tim McCarver explaining that they weren’t going to pretend that the upcoming game featuring replacement players was to the Major League Baseball standards fans were accustomed. Thank goodness, because it would’ve been hard to pretend. Nevertheless, Dad and I were glued to the set because we had no idea what to expect from these people donning Mets and Yankees uniforms. An over-the-hill Doug Sisk, the frequent target of Mets fans’ derision when he was a reliever in the 1980s, started the game and was as uninspiring as I’d remembered.

I don’t recall the score, but I do recall the Yankees led by a narrow margin when the bottom of the ninth dawned and they summoned a pitcher named Mike Pitz to get the last three outs. After we finished making fun of his last name, we watched Pitz load the bases with two outs, bringing up Lou Thornton. The day before, we saw a local sportscast where Thornton proclaimed he didn’t get a fair shake when he was with the non-replacement Mets a few years prior and he became a replacement player to prove he belonged in the Majors.

“Well Lou,” Dad opined as Thornton dug in. “This is your chance.”

Thornton worked the count full before swinging and missing at a pitch that was nowhere near the strike zone. Game over.

I don’t have vivid memories of where I was or what I was doing when the strike ended, probably because the ending seemed so anticlimactic. And it didn’t really end, per sé; future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an injunction against the owners, which prevented them from implementing new labor rules and from using replacement players. Thus, the owners lost a significant amount of their leverage and were essentially forced to work something out with the players. Shortly thereafter, a truncated spring training preceded a truncated regular season and the love of my life was back. Unlike many fans, I didn’t hold any animosity toward the players or the owners; even though I didn’t understand all of the issues that led to a strike, I figured both sides were probably each at fault to a certain extent. Regardless, I just wanted to see baseball. The strike was the first test of my passion for baseball and, strangely, it increased my love for the game. If I could still obsess over baseball even after dealing with the postseason being canceled for the first time in 90 years and after months of uncertainty, then nothing would mute my love for the National Pastime. And nothing has.

The door closed behind me as I entered the manager’s office in Kauffman Stadium’s visiting clubhouse. I introduced myself to Terry Francona as we shook hands. It wasn’t uncommon for me to interview accomplished baseball men, so I wasn’t nervous about talking with Francona, the two-time World Series-winning skipper of the Boston Red Sox. However, I was excited; I’d always enjoyed Francona’s interviews over the years and I’d heard he was an outstanding guest. My first question to Francona was a little long-winded. No, it was very long-winded. Something about the Red Sox struggles early in the year, the fact Boston has played a lot better since, but they still have the Yankees to contend with for the division, although they could still win the wild card even if they don’t win the division. It took me about 30 seconds to get all of that out and, while I was talking, my brain was telling my mouth to shut up, but my mouth wasn’t responding.

When I was done with my first question, I pointed my digital recorder toward Francona. He looked at me through his wire-rimmed glasses.

“Well, that was a mouthful!” Francona said.

And my interview was off to a terrible start. I was flustered and neither Francona nor I could get past my opening salvo. The rest of my questions – while shorter – were mediocre, as were Francona’s responses. The Red Sox media relations rep told me I had 3-4 minutes to interview the manager and, when I’d gotten through about 3 ½ minutes of misery, Francona gave me the “wrap it up” sign with his right index finger, which threw me off even further and led to another terrible question and another subpar answer. After we were done, I thanked Francona, who seemed annoyed. I couldn’t blame him; I did a terrible job.

Even though interviewing is an important part of sports broadcasting, very little time is spent on properly teaching and honing necessary interview skills. Very few people in sports broadcasting are hired based on their interview skills; the sound of one’s play-by-play or the strength of one’s sports-talk radio opinions take precedence. I was never asked or quizzed on my interview skills when I got my first broadcasting jobs; those doing the hiring assumed I’d be able to be an effective interviewer. Although you may not get a job because of your ability to interview and ask good questions, not doing both well could make it difficult to keep or establish credibility with the coaches and athletes you cover.

The most important thing I try to remember when conducting interviews for broadcast is people want to hear from my interviewee and not from me. As a result, my questions should be succinct and to the point. One of my pet peeves is media members who ask long questions, like I did in my first question with Francona. Long-winded questions are the result of a questioner trying to show how smart he or she is and/or not having a fully-formed question or idea when he or she starts talking (in the above example with Francona, I was guilty of both).

An interviewer should try not to ask yes-or-no questions, but sometimes that will happen even if you’re trying to prevent it. However, that’s where asking good follow-up questions comes into play. I’ve seen too many media members get a “yes” or a “no” to their question and not follow up; just because you got a “yes” or a “no” doesn’t mean the interviewee has no desire to elaborate. Sometimes, succinct questions lead to succinct answers, but that’s where follow-up questions come into play. It doesn’t mean you have to turn into Jack Bauer interrogating a terrorist, but good follow-up questions are essential for a good interview. And, if you pay attention, the interviewee will let you know how much he or she is willing to say.

That’s another key to a good interview – paying attention. Most media members go into an interview with an idea of questions to ask. Some write those questions down, others don’t – I jot down notes for a few questions for a little more than half of the interviews I conduct. However, the interviewee may bring up something in one of his or her answers that is worthy of exploration and further elaboration. I go into every interview with a plan, but I’m not afraid to deviate from that plan if circumstances indicate I should. Part of my problem in my interview with Francona was I tried too hard to ask him most of what I wanted to ask in the first question, rather than opening with simple, concise questions and letting Francona’s responses guide subsequent questions.

You may be wondering, if I’m aware of these interview rules, how did I mess up my interview with Francona? Even the best interviewers (and I’m far from one of the best) screw up the basics sometimes, which is why it’s important to remind ourselves of those tenets. My debacle with Francona also underscores the need to listen to ourselves, the need to be self-critical and self-correcting. The best broadcasters I’ve dealt with know they’re good, but also know they’re fallible, and they look to correct mistakes or tighten up their performance at every opportunity. One of the reasons I love working with and listening to younger and less experienced broadcasters is it forces me to go back to basics; critiquing their work and reinforcing or introducing elementary concepts to them reminds me of those concepts as well.

More than anything, keep interviewing simple. Or else, Terry Francona will think you’re an idiot.

The most important thing for a play-by-play broadcaster’s development is reps; one needs to call games in order to get better at calling games. But, listening is also important – listening to yourself, listening to others and getting decision makers and/or more experienced broadcasters to provide constructive feedback after listening to you. Without those three types of listening, it’s impossible for a play-by-play broadcaster to get better or to know if he or she is headed in the right direction. All three types of listening have been crucial in my development as a play-by-play broadcaster.

*          *          *

The first time I called baseball play-by-play on the radio was in Pasco, Washington – the season opener between my team, the Yakima Bears, and the Tri-City Dust Devils. I’d never done a pre-game show on my own and I’d never thought about how to put one together, making my 15-minute pre-game a challenge. I did very little research on the Bears players and no research on the Dust Devils players, so I had little to talk about during lulls in the action. When there was action, my calls were pedestrian at best, horrendous at worst. In short, I was awful.

After the game, I started thinking. Should I listen back to my first broadcast? I wondered. Maybe I could learn something. When I was in college, veteran broadcasters spoke to me and my classmates about the importance of listening to our own broadcasts, so didn’t I need to start after my first game? I never did listen to my first baseball broadcast; as it turned out, I screwed up my recording of the game – of course I did! – so I couldn’t listen even if I wanted to.

Eventually, I figured out how to archive my game broadcasts on my Minidisc recorder, but I was two weeks into my first season before I listened to one of my broadcasts. It was a game at Everett, Washington that ended when the Bears leftfielder dropped a fly ball with two outs in the ninth inning, allowing the winning run to score. I thought my call of the game was very good, particularly my call of the final play. And, on the 20-minute bus ride from the Everett ballpark to the hotel, I listened to myself through my headphones. My initial assessment of my call was accurate; I sounded really good, even upon further review. However, I noticed a few things I didn’t like about my call and I made mental notes on the improvements I needed to make. After the brief listening session, I felt pretty good about my play-by-play and was excited about my next broadcast, when I’d get to implement some of the changes I wanted to make.

That exercise led to me creating a policy to which I still adhere – I only listen to my play-by-play after what I feel is a very good broadcast. When I’ve listened to games I’ve done that I didn’t think were very good, I’ve wound up picking apart my call even more and feeling uninspired about my work. But, listening to games in which I felt my call was good energizes me even while I recognize there’s room for improvement.

*          *          *

I love long-distance drives on Saturday afternoons during the fall and winter, because they give me a chance to listen to basketball and/or football play-by-play. On this particular Saturday in December, I was in the middle of a three-hour drive to call a basketball game when my radio dial settled on the broadcast of a Division I basketball game. The play-by-play broadcaster was decent; he painted the picture pretty well and gave the time and score often. However, he kept referring to his team by their nickname, a nickname I didn’t immediately identify with a particular school. I listened to nearly a quarter of the game broadcast before I heard the school’s name.

I immediately thought of my own basketball broadcasts; at the time, I was calling games for the University of Nebraska Omaha. Do I say the school’s name and nickname enough? I thought. Do I make it clear that “Nebraska Omaha” and “Mavericks” are one in the same? From that point forward, I made more of an effort to interchange the school name and nickname of both teams as often as possible, occasionally using both together. The broadcaster I was listening to may have figured the majority of his listeners are fans of his school and didn’t need to hear the school’s name repeatedly. However, I’ve always believed it’s important to make my broadcasts accessible to as many listeners as possible without dumbing down the broadcast to the point where diehard fans would be offended. And, I didn’t think making it clear that “Nebraska Omaha” and “Mavericks” or “IUPUI” and “Jaguars” or “Kansas City” and “Kangaroos” were interchangeable would insult my core audience.

Too often, play-by-play broadcasters think they can only learn from the best broadcasters and, if they’re listening to a broadcast by someone they deem inferior, they just tear it apart without breaking down the call critically. However, lessons can be learned even from the worst broadcasters. Mind you, the Division I broadcaster I’m referring to was far from horrible – he was quite good, actually – but I was able to learn from something he did that I thought sounded awkward. There are broadcasters I don’t particularly care for who are good at certain facets of play-by-play that I try to emulate. A play-by-play broadcaster can learn something from every game broadcast he or she listens to, whether it’s what to do or what not to do; the latter is just as important as the former.

*          *          *

I don’t remember how Liana wound up with a free night at a hotel – was is for opening a new bank account? Anyhow, because I had a basketball game to call on Valentine’s Day, we decided to celebrate the holiday the following week by spending a couple of days in Syracuse, New York; I’d never taken Liana to the city where I earned my college degree, Syracuse was only an hour away and it was a trip that was within our modest budget. We’d just checked into our hotel when my cellphone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered anyway. To my surprise, it was the Director of Broadcasting for a National League team. He wanted to talk to me about the demo CD I’d sent him.

A couple of months prior, I sent a CD with clips of my baseball play-by-play to nearly all of the 30 Major League Baseball teams, hoping to get some feedback on my work. The few teams I’d heard from hadn’t told me much, if anything, about my play-by-play skills. So, I listened intently as the gentleman on the other end told me I needed to be more descriptive (“this isn’t television,” he reminded me). I kept probing him for more information; what else did you notice? I asked. The Director of Broadcasting was firm, but friendly, and he was happy to answer any questions I had. We talked for about an hour. At the end, he told me I was headed in the right direction and that, with more experience, I’d have a shot at a broadcasting position in the Major Leagues. He also encouraged me to keep in touch and to keep sending him my demos. After that conversation, I was a much better broadcaster. I also realized Liana must love me to put up with me spending an hour of our romantic getaway on the phone.

Of the three types of listening, getting constructive feedback is the hardest to accomplish. Most who listen to a play-by-play broadcaster will either tell that broadcaster he or she is great or that he or she is awful, if they tell him or her anything at all. That’s why it’s important to cast a wide net; when I was a minor league baseball broadcaster I contacted the Director of Broadcasting for several Major League Baseball teams and two gave me constructive feedback (another National League team’s Director of Broadcasting emailed me with useful feedback and we later spoke over the phone). It’s crucial to keep seeking constructive feedback until you get it. And, once you find people willing to help you, don’t be afraid to ask them to listen to more of your work down the road as you continue to get better.

Will My Daughter…?

Will my daughter know what a dial tone is? Will she know what it’s like to hear a busy signal? Will she know what it sounds like when a landline phone rings? Will she ever have to write down a message and will I ever have to explain to her how to answer the phone when she’s home alone in such a way that strangers won’t know her parents’ whereabouts?

Will my daughter know what a record is? Will she ever be scolded for running or jumping near the record player, thus making the record skip? Will she even know what a record skip is? Will she ever listen to the radio for hours, hoping to hear her favorite song a few more times? Will she know what it’s like to fast forward or rewind a cassette, just to hear that one song she really likes?

Will my daughter know what it’s like to wait until the summer to catch the television episodes that she missed? Will she watch her favorite movie over and over again, until the VHS tape wears out? Will she experience looking forward to Saturday mornings, because that’s when all of the cartoons come on? Will she know what it’s like to manipulate the television antenna in order to receive one of the seven available channels clearly?

Will my daughter learn how to sign her name? Will her third-grade teacher force her class to write in cursive, spending copious hours on the proper way to write a script Q or a script Z? Will she know what it’s like to write in longhand until her right hand starts to hurt? Will she ever have to rewrite a one- or two-page essay by hand because of one or two mistakes or misspellings? Will she ever use a manual pencil sharpener? Will she and her classmates have to share the one computer sitting in the back of the classroom? Will she ever use correction fluid?

Will my daughter ever look something up in a hardcover encyclopedia? Will she spend countless hours sifting through books in the library trying to find that one piece of information that’s vital to her class project? Will she know what a card catalog or what the Dewey Decimal System is? Will she keep returning to the library to look things up in one of the reference books they won’t allow her to take home?

Will my daughter hurt herself on a seesaw or a metal swing? Will she hang from the top of the monkey bars, knowing any false moves could lead to broken limbs? Will she skin her knees on the playground’s uneven concrete? Will she ever ride a bicycle or ride roller skates without a helmet? Will she ever play a pickup game organized by she and her peers and without adult supervision?

Will my daughter get four quarters from a relative and think she’s wealthy beyond belief? Will she know what penny candy is? Will she be able to go to the store on her own, without being driven by an adult? Will she and her friends be shooed away from the store’s pay phone because they’re making prank calls?

My daughter will learn the importance of a good, solid handshake and the importance of looking people in the eye. She will know the importance of speaking up and the importance of having her voice heard. She will be taught to say “please” and “thank you” and “no thank you” at the appropriate times. She will learn to respect her elders, teachers and coaches, even when she disagrees with them. She will be allowed to settle her playground and schoolyard disputes on her own whenever possible. She will know that education is important and that her schoolwork comes first. She will have the value of reading impressed upon her. She will be encouraged to be acutely aware of her surroundings and to try and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. She will learn the importance of sharing and of valuing her fellow man and woman. She will be taught not to always judge a book by its cover. She will be forced to push herself intellectually and spiritually. She will be educated about serious issues like sex and drugs at the appropriate times and without words being minced. She will have several adult role models who will push and encourage her.

In many ways, my daughter’s childhood will be much different from mine. But, my hope is that her childhood will mirror mine in the most important ways.