Two Lives Collide at the Ball Park on Father’s Day

My two lives collided today when we took the boys to Tropicana Field for a game between the Rays and the Marlins. It’s still weird going back to that place.

Did you ever go back to your old high school for a visit in the years shortly after graduation? You feel like an interloper in a place that once was so familiar. Even though they might greet you with warm handshakes and smiles, you know it’s only for a minute because there are other, more-pressing demands at hand. You are no longer an integral part of the décor. Everyone has moved on without you.

It’s like that when I go back to the Trop, the place I used to call my office.

This was the AP version of Father’s Day for the DadScribe family: A near-sellout crowd saw the Rays defeat the Marlins, 3-0, on the strength of seven shutout innings for starting pitcher Alex Cobb and a leadoff home run for center fielder B.J. Upton.

The optional write-through would lead with my sons going off for an hour with their mom to play in the many kid-themed areas they’ve stuffed the Trop with over the years. Meanwhile, I popped into the press box for a quick chat with an old acquaintance or two. I didn’t bother the other writers, because they were busy. They had other, more-pressing matters at hand. I’m no longer an integral part of the décor.

So, we all went to the ball game. A co-worker has access to fantastic tickets in the lower bowl, slightly down the first-base line behind home plate and about 10 rows from the field. This was good, because there’s no way the boys would’ve been able to follow the game from the nosebleeds. Come to think of it, though, My younger son could’ve done exactly what he did at those seats if we’d been in the upper deck – play round after round of Angry Birds on my old iPhone. At least my older son was a bit more engaged. When Upton hit his homer, he jumped out of his seat and pumped his fists. I’m sure it had as much to do with the general air of excitement around him as it did his actual reaction to the hit, but it was a great moment, nonetheless.

The best moment had nothing to do with the game. During the pregame circus at the Trop, dancing girls toss t-shirts and little foam baseballs into the stands (The ghosts of Branch Rickey and Kenesaw Mountain Landis are surely tormented by the fact that, in the 21st century, dancing girls throw t-shirts and little foam balls into the stands during pregame). One of the little foam balls landed at the feet of an elderly gentleman a few rows in front of us. He picked it up, made his way to our seats, smiled, and wordlessly handed the ball to my older son. We thanked him, and my kid immediately stood up and tossed me the ball. Then he held out his hands for me to throw it back to him. That’s right. Our first game of catch at an actual major-league stadium came courtesy of those dancing girls and that kindly old man. Another great moment in a day full of them.

Still … every now and then, I couldn’t help gazing over my left shoulder at the press box. Before the game, as they went through the usual loud and (frankly) obnoxious pregame preparations, I pointed out the press box to my older son.

“See all those guys sitting up there, buddy? That’s where I used to work. Right up there.”

He looked at the heads of the writers and broadcasters, just visible above the front lip of the press box. His question astonished me. Sometimes I have to remind myself he’s only 6.

“Daddy, do you wish you still worked up there and you were still a writer covering games?”

I didn’t even have to think about my answer.

“No way, buddy. If I still did that, I’d be on the road all the time. And even when I was home, I’d be here almost every night, and you’d almost never see me. I like it just the way it is right now.”

And I meant that. It’s never going to be “just a trip to the ball game” for me when I go to the Trop. Every nook and cranny of that place is absolutely stuffed with memories. I wrapped so much of my self-identity into my former profession, and visiting Tropicana Field reminds me of the guy I used to be. I didn’t always like that guy, and I wasn’t always happy in that profession. But man, it was glorious.

I don’t know. Maybe now that I’ve introduced the boys to that part of my former life, we’ll start to go to the Trop more often as a family. They certainly seemed to enjoy it. And who knows? Maybe the more I go with them, and the more I begin to see the Trop, and baseball, through their eyes, the less awkward it will feel for me to be there.

And one day, maybe we’ll sit in our seats and enjoy the game and the company and I won’t be tempted to gaze wistfully up at the press box. Instead, maybe I’ll think back to the time when we were there and my son tossed me that little foam ball, and my younger son sat quietly and played Angry Birds, and my wife and I smiled at each other and knew it was a good day.

 

The Places I Saw, the Things I Did

I was a sportswriter from 1986 until 2010. During that time, I worked primarily for the Tampa Tribune in Florida. When I was hired there in 1992, there were about 65 people on the sports staff. After the most recent round of layoffs, there are, by my count, seven sportswriters working at the Tribune today.

It’s as good an example of the demise of newspapers as you’ll find. Just 20 years ago, sportswriting was an invigorating career, tough but generally fair, relatively safe from the whims of the economy. Today, it is a dying* industry.

*Some might quibble with that characterization, preferring the term “evolving” to “dying.” I’m sure the folks who built horse-drawn carriages when Henry Ford came along made a similar myopic argument.

There is a lot I miss about the business.

The people, of course. Sports journalists are almost all adolescents at heart, with all of the quirks and charm of that species. This is not a knock on sportswriters. Far from it, in fact. I’m not calling all sportswriters immature (although many of them certainly were – and are), and I’m not calling all of them irresponsible pups (although, again, if the shoe fits, many of them will certainly chew it to tatters). I’m saying that as a group, the sportswriters I knew (and know) combine an endearing eagerness to please, an astonishing lack of self-awareness, outward confidence and a burning desire to know that makes them as energetic a professional class as you’re likely to come across. Sportswriters are not necessarily poets, but they care deeply about the written word. They are story tellers and historians. They are witnesses, and I was one of them for a while.

Big Ben and Parliament, London. Taken as the clock struck 10.

My sons know virtually nothing of my life as a sportswriter. They don’t know that I was fortunate enough to sit in press boxes all over the world, watch games, and write about it for a living. There’s a lot more to it, of course, like cultivating sources and breaking news and competing for stories. And on, and on. The heart of it, though, was being there when something happened that was worth writing about.

And one of the things I miss most about the business is the very reason I’m glad I don’t do it anymore: travel. There was nothing better than going places and seeing things. And, in my opinion, there is nothing worse for a sportswriting father than going places and seeing things that don’t involve his family. There are plenty of sportswriter parents who manage to meet the extraordinary demands of the career while rearing a family. Good on them for that. But it’s not the life I wanted. I didn’t want to miss my sons’ formative years. I wanted to be here for them. So, I asked off a pretty nice beat, covering a major league baseball team, and moved to general assignment sports at the end of the 2005 baseball season. I was laid off three years later. I managed to scrape along on freelance sportswriting work for 19 months before landing a full-time job with an Internet marketing company. And that was that.

And even though I want to be here for my kids and wife – have to be here for them – part of me misses the road. I look back now and think of all the places I saw, all the things I did, and sometimes it seems like a dream. The list below is just a sample of the opportunities the job gave me to broaden my horizons. I want my boys to know I did these things, saw these things. They’re listed in no particular order:

  • I stood in front of the Aztec Sun Stone at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
  • I saw snow-capped Mt. Fuji from the deck of a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter flying from Tokyo to Yokohama.

    Mt. Fuji from a Blackhawk helicopter.

  • I visited Monument Park by myself – just me and the ghosts of Gehrig, Ruth, and the rest – at old Yankee Stadium.
  • I walked inside the Green Monster at Fenway Park.
  • I saw the Chicago skyline at night from the 96th floor observation deck of the Hancock Center.
  • I stood at the corner of Hollywood and Vine.
  • I sat through a 5.8 earthquake in San Diego.
  • I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and explored Muir Woods.
  • I drove to the end of the road up Mt. Rainier.

    Golden Gate Bridge and fog.

  • I stood in Times Square.
  • I saw Queen Street in Toronto.
  • I saw a forest of green and gold banners amid the smoky haze of hundreds of grill fires in the parking lot of Lambeau Field.
  • I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
  • I visited the Sixth Floor Museum at the Texas Book Depository in Dallas.
  • I lost way too much money at the MGM Grand casino in Detroit. And at Harrah’s in New Orleans. And at the airport in Las Vegas. And at the Potawatomi Casino in Milwaukee. And the Casino du Lac Leamy in Hull, Quebec. Sigh.
  • I stood on the edge of the world, also known as the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, where I didn’t notice I wasn’t breathing for at least a minute. That’s when I learned what it meant when something takes your breath away.

    The Grand Canyon.

  • I strolled through the Harvard campus during a bitterly cold spring morning.
  • I stood under the St. Louis arch.
  • I walked the length and breadth of the Manassas battleground in Virginia.
  • I walked the corridors of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
  • I got lost in the French Quarter.
  • I saw a family of beavers waddling along the Ottawa River right in the heart of the Canadian capital.
  • I saw Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains and the sunset from the top of the Space Needle.
  • I breathed the sacred smoke and marveled at the ancient architecture of the Hexagonal Shrine at the Sensoji Asakusa Kannon Buddhist Templein Tokyo.

    The gardens at the New Otani Hotel, Tokyo.

  • I saw the Rosetta Stone behind its glass enclosure at the British Museum.
  • I stood (reverently) on Charles Dickens’ grave at Westminster Abbey.

I saw all that, and I did all that, and much more, and met so, so many people, because I was a sportswriter for a time. Mind you, it wasn’t all a Rick Steves travel documentary. I managed to do most of these things because I made a point of playing the tourist when I visited all these places. It wasn’t the cool thing to do, I know. But I had to do it. It meant waking up early – really early – most of the time and getting out of the hotel room on limited (if any) sleep. It meant going it alone, more often than not. Then it meant grabbing a quick lunch and heading to work. I did it because I was almost obsessively curious about the world around me, and because I just … wanted to see what there was to see.

Westminster Abbey, London, resting place of Charles Dickens.

So, I’ve seen it now. And, yeah, I miss it sometimes. And I wish I could somehow upload those memories into my sons’ young brains. But I guess it’s OK that these are my memories, my experiences, because the boys will create their own. One thing I know. No matter how much I miss it, no matter how much I wish I could walk along Fisherman’s Wharf or browse the historic shelves at City Lights Book Store one more time, I know that I’m where I need to be. Where I want to be. I’m home.

These Aren’t the Spurs You’re Looking For. Move Along.

My older son knows not one, but two Tottenham Hotspur fight songs by heart. He actually learned them two years ago, back when my sickness was still new and I was extraordinarily contagious.

Sickness? Yeah.

Spurs Fever.

How did this happen? Long story short: NOT because of Bill Simmons.

Long story slightly longer:

In October 2009, I traveled to London to cover the Buccaneers-Patriots game at Wembley Stadium for CBSsports.com. It was the final road trip of my sportswriting career, although I didn’t know it at the time. The (American) football game took place on the same day as one of the games of the year in the English Premier League, Liverpool-Manchester United. I had heard of both teams, of course, but the way England simply shut down during the match made me think it was something kind of huge and momentous.

But no. It was just a normal weekend in the EPL. A meeting of two of the historical Big Four, sure, but only the 10th game of a 38-game season for both teams. Early days, indeed.

When the gates open before an NFL game in the U.S., the early arrivers abandon their tailgate spots and stream into the stadium. In places like Green Bay, fans just can’t wait to get to their seats and soak it all in.

On that day at Wembley, the gates opened and … nothing. A few Bucs and Patriots filtered out onto the field, and the pregame performers rehearsed in front of 90,000 empty red seats. Where was everybody?

Those not jammed into Anfield on Merseyside (two words I never would have been able to write with conviction three years ago) were parked in front of screens watching Liverpool beat the Red Devils, 2-0, thanks to goals by Fernando Torres (remember when that used to happen?) and late substitute David Ngog. Upstairs at Wembley, the gathered members of the media were crammed into the dining area, all agog at Ngog’s late clincher.

I watched, too. And when that match was done, the curious Brits who had shelled out their hard-earned pounds to watch what would be a Patriots romp against the Bucs began to flow into Wembley.

Clearly, they had their priorities straight.

So, that’s where it started. I was infected with Spurs Fever that very day, although it would take a few weeks to fully manifest itself. I guess you could say I was THFC positive. It didn’t develop into the full-blown Fever until I sat down and began my research.

You see, I wanted a team. After being exposed to such collective passion on such a grand scale, I needed to feel it.

I chose Tottenham Hotspur Football Club because:

  • I didn’t want one of the American bandwagon teams, so that ruled out Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool.
  • I wanted a team from London, so that gave me Fulham, West Ham United, Arsenal and Tottenham (Queens Park Rangers had not yet progressed to the Premier League).
  • I wanted a team with a chance to win something, so that ruled out Fulham and West Ham.
  • I did not want a team that stood for all things evil and rank in the world, so that ruled out Arsenal.

That left Tottenham Hotspur, founded in 1882. The more I learned about the Lilywhites, the more I liked.

They win. They lose. But they do both with style. (Today’s North London Derby embarrassment notwithstanding. I don’t want to talk about it.)

I even liked their Latin motto: Audere est facere, which translates loosely, “To dare is to do.”

(A quick aside here. I grew up a fan of the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team. That came naturally growing up in Eastern North Carolina, as a subconscious rebellion against my nuclear family – N.C. State fans, all – and as a conscious tribute to point guard Phil Ford, whose days in Chapel Hill coincided with the start of my very unsuccessful youth career as a ball-handling, dishing point guard. I used to love all things UNC, as a quick glance at my casual wardrobe will attest. By the time I discovered Tottenham Hotspur, I think I had outgrown my childhood favorite – but not the need to embrace a team. So, Tottenham came into my life when I was most vulnerable to the disease.)

Now? My son knows who Gareth Bale is, but he has never heard of Michael Jordan or Albert Pujols. He knows who plays at White Hart Lane, but Fenway Park might as well be a Disney attraction.

In other words, he’s got it, too. I suppose I should feel guilty about infecting him with Spurs Fever. But I can’t. It’s pretty cool to hear him sing, “Commme onnn you Spur-urrrrrrrrrs!” and “Oh, when the Spurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrs … Go marching innnnnnnnnnnn!

Oh, who am I kidding? He doesn’t have a disease. It’s social programming with mind control (aka the Force). It’s good to be the Dad. COYS.