Disenchanted sportswriter Jeff Savage tells all – Padres, Chargers, Copley Press

I was the coolest guy I knew

Former Padres manager Greg Riddoch talks with the press, spring training, 1992: “A lot of players are jerks. It didn’t used to be that way. Money changed them."
  • Former Padres manager Greg Riddoch talks with the press, spring training, 1992: “A lot of players are jerks. It didn’t used to be that way. Money changed them."

I’m sitting in the press box at Jack Murphy Stadium for the first time as a member of the “working press ” watching the Padres getting whacked by the Expos. It’s 1982. The Padres stink. Dick Williams is their manager.

Jim McMahon. McMahon tilted his head back, covered one nostril with his finger, and rifled a wad of snot through the other, directly into T.J.’s ear.

Jim McMahon. McMahon tilted his head back, covered one nostril with his finger, and rifled a wad of snot through the other, directly into T.J.’s ear.

I’m there with a flimsy tape recorder to get quotes from ballplayers for the UCSD campus radio station that no one listens to. Sportswriters are all around me, middle-aged white men in ties and nice sweaters. Everyone’s talking and laughing and scribbling in spiral notebooks and wolfing free popcorn and drinking free beer. Except me. I’m just some punk college kid frozen in his seat, nervous as hell.

Dan Marino: “Hey, man,” he said as he leaned into me, “if you print that, I’m gonna kick your ass!”

Dan Marino: “Hey, man,” he said as he leaned into me, “if you print that, I’m gonna kick your ass!”

The game ends on a strikeout, and the writers scramble from their seats and blow down the hall, around the comer to the elevator. I catch up just in time to squeeze in, and down we go. Everyone gets quiet.

Pete Rose. “Listen, if I decide to be a designated hitter, you’ll be the first guy I let know. What’s your phone number? I’ll call you the moment I decide.” His buddies were laughing now.

Pete Rose. “Listen, if I decide to be a designated hitter, you’ll be the first guy I let know. What’s your phone number? I’ll call you the moment I decide.” His buddies were laughing now.

The doors slide open and I’m the first one out. It’s a dark corridor. Where the hell are we? I step to the side, faking that I have to check my tape recorder, to let the sportswriters slip by. They move down the corridor in a pack, and I join them from behind. We turn right, then left, and arrive at a closed blue door above which it says “Padres Baseball Club.” After a minute the door opens and we step inside.

It’s a big, brightly lit room. The air is hot and soggy. Guys are sitting around half naked. A few sportswriters fan out to the players, but about ten of them go through a doorway to the right. I follow. It’s a small room lined with chairs and a long couch. The manager’s office.

The writers quickly take seats until there’s nothing left but a small space at the end of the couch. I make my way over and sit down. In front of me is a large desk and chair. It must be the manager’s, which is perfect for me since I need to get quotes with my tape recorder. I notice I’m the only one in the room with a microphone. Everyone else is sitting with a pen and notepad. Where are all the radio station reporters, I wonder?

In a side doorway a figure appears. He is wearing long underwear. He walks in holding a can of Schlitz beer. He has gray hair and deep lines in his face. It’s Dick Williams.

I knew nothing about Dick Williams to this point except that he managed the Oakland A’s to a couple of World Series titles in the early ’70s and he was among my heroes.

Williams grunts a little as he slowly sits down in his chair. He takes a big gulp of beer and then belches. No one says a word. Williams stares at his desk. Without looking up he takes another swig of beer. I can’t figure it out. Why isn’t anyone saying anything? Williams burps again. He’s two feet away from me. I’m so nervous I could puke.

“Uh, Dick,” someone finally mutters.

I get my tape recorder ready.

“Uh, Dick, did Ruppert miss a sign off first base in the fifth?”

I click on my recorder as Williams clears his throat, and I push the mike up near his mouth.

“What the fuck?” he says, staring at the microphone.

“What the fuck is this?” he says even louder. Then he snaps his head around and glares at me.

“Who the fuck are you?” he yells. “Who the fuck are you!”

My whole body freezes. I try to answer. “I’m-I’m-J-J-Jeff Saa— ”

“Who the fuck are you?” he yells again. Then he just explodes. “Get the fuck outta here! Get the fuck outta this office!”

I lift myself from the couch as Williams springs from his chair. The other reporters are dead-still. “Goddamnit!” he screams as he points at the door. “Get the fuck outta here!”

I crash over ankles and feet as I bolt from the office, out the locker room, and up the corridor to the elevator.

“Press box?” the elevator operator asks as I step in. “No,” I say with my heart pounding. “First level.”

I flee from the stadium to my car without looking back.

I never should have gone back to the Murph. Ever. Instead, it became a big part of my life. I was thrilled with sports and athletes, so I got a job as a sportswriter at the San Diego Tribune. I lasted eight years in the business. I finally wised up and quit in 1992.

Guys think sports writing is a cool job. Free games. Free food. Conversations with athletes. What could be better? Trust me, the job stinks. The hours tear you down and the deadline pressure beats in your head. Editors can make the job especially miserable. Above all, most athletes are insufferable assholes.

When David Hirshey, a sportswriter for the New York Daily News in the ’70s, learned that Reggie Jackson of the Yankees fantasized about singing with the O’Jays, he decided to write a story about it. “I walked up to him at his locker,” Hirshey said, “and asked, ‘Reggie, I know you can carry a team. Can you carry a tune?’ ” Jackson turned around, lifted a leg, farted, and said, “How’s this tune?” Shortly thereafter, Hirshey left sports writing.

An athlete never farted on me. I was lucky.

To get locker room quotes on game day, you have to be very careful where you position yourself. It’s especially tough after a Raiders or Rams game in L.A., with the media cramming in. A player sits naked on a stool in front of his cubicle, toweling off from a shower, and you’re squeezed in with 20 other fools straining to hear him mutter, “We never shoulda lost” or “The ref blew the call.” Your face is buried in another reporter’s greasy hair, the guys pressing you from the sides have B.O., and you’re getting banged from behind by a television camera. Worse is when you’re in the front of this scrum and there’s a push from behind and it takes all the leg strength you’ve got to maintain your stance. I’ve seen guys fall onto players. I’ve seen players get pissed.

I got yelled at plenty while learning the business, working for the UCSD campus newspaper and radio station. I didn’t know the locker room rules, like sticking a microphone in the face of a sonofabitch manager whose team just lost. I also asked a lot of stupid questions.

One time, when the San Francisco Giants were in town, I approached slugger Jack Clark (another of my Bay Area heroes) in the locker room before the game.

“So, Jack,” I said without introducing myself, “what’s it like to carry the Giants?”

“Hey, man, I don’t want to talk,” he said as he yanked his shirt over his head.

God, I thought to myself. What a dumb question. I’d better try another one a little more tame.

“So, Jack, how do you think the team’s young pitching staff will hold up this season?”

Clark wheeled on me. “Hey, muthafucka!” he yelled, “I said I didn’t want to talk! Clear the fuck out!”

I didn’t try a third question.

Another time the Phillies were in town, and I just had to talk to Pete Rose. He was standing in the locker room with some shady-looking characters long after the game had ended.

“Hi, Pete. I’m Jeff Savage from the UCSD Guardian. ”

“So?”

“So I was wondering if I could talk to you for just a moment.”

“What about,” he snapped.

“Well, I was wondering if you might be thinking about switching to the American League to be a designated hitter.”

Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. The man is one of the greatest hitters ever, and I’m suggesting to him that he’s too slow and old to play first base (which, of course, he was by then).

“Listen,” Rose said, “if I decide to be a designated hitter, you’ll be the first guy I let know. What’s your phone number? I’ll call you the moment I decide.”

His buddies were laughing now.

“Tell ya what,” Rose went on. “Let me give you my card. It’s got my home phone number on the back. Call me as soon as I get back to Philly. I’ll decide on the plane.”

Embarrassing myself was no fun, but I didn’t care much. I was hanging with the athletes, talking with the pros. How many guys got to do that? I wanted to do it for a living.

New colleague Nick Canepa told me my first week of work at the Tribune in 1984 that being a sportswriter would be great for the bar scene. “Women love it,” he said. “They’ll be all over you.” If you’ve seen Mike, you know he didn’t need to be a sportswriter to attract women. Me, I needed the help.

Kirk Kenney was hired shortly after me, and we’d go bar-hopping together. We’d get involved in some lame conversation with women, and eventually one of them would ask, “So, what do you guys do?” Kirk was classic.

“Write,” he’d say real cool out the side of his mouth.

“Really?” they’d say. “That’s great. What do you write?”

“Sports.”

“Really? You’re a sportswriter? For what newspaper?”

Trib.”

“Oh, wow. That’s great. Your name is, like, in the paper and everything? You know all the athletes? Tell me about....”

At first, being a sportswriter was great fun.

I sat in the dugout with the Giants for two' innings as they were clinching the NL West in ’87. I rode around in a golf cart with Eric Dickerson, had lunch with Nolan Ryan, dinner with Dominique Wilkins, had long conversations with John Elway, Warren Moon, Evander Holyfield, Jerry Tarkanian, David Robinson, Will Clark....

I was caught up in greatness by association. In one two-month period, I was quoted in USA Today as an authority (which I wasn’t) on some sports subject, seen by all my friends in a front-page Union photo standing on the sideline as the Chargers were making a gamesaving tackle, and shown on ESPN holding Dan Forsman’s baby while Dan was tapping in to win the tournament at Torrey Pines. I was the coolest guy I knew.

Somehow you lose perspective.

When I covered a Raiders exhibition game in Oakland in 1989, I got a press pass for my childhood pal Gerry Bottero, because we grew up rooting for the Raiders and I knew he’d enjoy the experience. On our way down to the locker room after the game, I handed him a pen and notepad and told him to fake like he was taking notes so it looked like he belonged. As I moved from player to player gathering quotes for my story, I noticed Gerry across the room, high-stepping through heaps of wet towels and mounds of white tape, doing his best to dodge players and reporters.

“Pretty neat, eh, Ger?” I said as we left the locker room.

“Neat?” he replied. “Just a bunch of hairy butts in my face. What’s so neat about that?”

He had a point.

Still, I was having too much fun hobnobbing. And not just with sports stars. My ultimate elbow-rubbing came every January when I spent a week on the phone getting Super Bowl predictions from celebrities. I talked to Jimmy Stewart, Janet Leigh, Sidney Poitier, and a bunch more. I talked with Bob Hope every year, and one time we swapped jokes for 15 minutes.

It wasn’t talking with bigwigs that thrilled me, but seeing the reaction of my friends. Then I’d play it down like it was nothing. “Just part of the job,” I’d say.

I got so carried away that I called the Kremlin to get Mikhail Gorbachev’s prediction. After 20 minutes of being transferred from one department to another, I figured I’d burned up enough of Helen Copley’s money and hung up.

Another time I tried to talk with Cary Grant.

“Hello, is Cary home, please.”

“Who is this?” a woman says.

“This is Jeff Savage from the San Diego Tribune. I’m calling to get Cary’s Super Bowl prediction for the game, if he’s got a minute.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, really, we like to get predictions. People love reading about that sort of stuff.”

“Are...are you serious?” she says.

“Yeah, sure. Why not? Is he busy or something?”

Long pause.

“Hello?” I say. “Are you still there?”

“Cary’s been dead,” she whispers, “for over a year.”

Slowly something began to change. The thrill of interviewing athletes subsided. What they had to say was predictable and boring. And sometimes they refused to talk at all. But no matter how dull the players were, I needed quotes for my story.

I asked Eric Davis in the Reds’ locker room one day about his home run prowess. Eric is a slight man who generates tremendous bat speed to hit with power, unlike bigger men like Frank Thomas, who use their size. I explained to Eric that I was writing a story on the subject.

“Nah, man, I ain’t got nuthin to say,” Eric replied.

Nothing to say? About his own magnificent skills? Was Eric one of those rare athletes who don’t like talking about themselves, preferring instead to discuss the exploits of others?

“What about your teammate Kal Daniels? Are you impressed with his home run power?” “Nah, man, ain’t no thing.”

“What about Darryl Strawberry? Kevin Mitchell? Do they impress you?”

“Nah.”

“Do any players impress you?”

“Nah.”

“Do you have any thoughts at all on the subject?”

“Nuthin.”

Eric Davis wasn’t rude. He was lifeless. I had to ask him one more question.

“What about playing baseball in general? Are you happy to be playing?”

“Ain’t no thing.”

It is common courtesy after an interview to thank an athlete for his time. It was hard to thank Eric.

I approached first baseman Wally Joyner in the Angels’ locker room at spring training one day to ask him about the upcoming season. Wally was lacing his shoes when I introduced myself. I asked him for a minute of his time.

“No,” he said.

I told him I’d just driven up from San Diego and that all I needed was a forecast. No deep thinking required. Just a prediction for the paper.

“No time to talk,” he said.

I stood there a moment, wondering how a person could be so cold. I asked him to reconsider. Just a quick assessment of the team. A comment. Anything.

“Game time,” he muttered.

This was three hours before a spring training game.

“Oh, game time,” I said. “Then I’d better get to the press box in a hurry.”

“Asshole,” he said.

When U-T sports columnist Nick Canepa goes into a baseball locker room, he says he often gets the feeling that 25 guys don’t want him in there. Nick doesn’t unfairly jab local athletes. In fact, sometimes he can be too nice. He gets the chill for one reason alone — because he is a sportswriter.

Athletes don’t need sportswriters anymore. Back when salaries were fathomable, athletes appreciated any exposure they could get. Players and reporters may not have been fast friends, but their relationship was harmonious because each had something to gain. Now, money is out of sight and TV is the road to fame. It’s safer for athletes to make a few harmless comments in a quick post-game TV interview than reveal their thoughts to sportswriters and worry about what will be printed. Writers are now a nuisance.

Trib beat writer Barry Bloom criticized the Padres in a column for their childish behavior in a beanbrawl in Atlanta in 1984. When the players read the story, they voted 24-1 to ban Bloom from the clubhouse (Steve Garvey cast the dissenting vote). Major league baseball rules prohibit such an act, so Bloom was allowed to remain. But some players made it miserable for him.

When Bloom wrote that some unnamed Padres (Gary Templeton and Alan Wiggins) were concerned about teammates belonging to the John Birch Society, catcher Terry Kennedy (a Birch member) approached Bloom and punched him in the shoulder. Bloom got in Kennedy’s face and yelled, “Don’t you ever touch me again.” The locker room fell silent. Bloom reiterated, “Terry, don’t you ever, ever lay your hand on me again. Understand me?” Kennedy turned away.

Pitcher Eric Show asked Bloom later what he would have done had Kennedy not backed down. “What could I do?” Bloom said. “I would’ve had to fight him.”

“He would’ve kicked the shit out of you,” Show said. “You showed a lot of guts.”

When Rich “Goose” Gossage blew a lead in a game in 1986, manager Steve Boros took the blame by saying he should not have used the relief pitcher two nights in a row. “He was probably tired,” Boros told reporters. “I should’ve rested him. It was my fault.”

Gossage was sitting at a table when Bloom approached him.

“Fuck you, Barry. Get away from me,” Gossage said. “I’m not talking to you.”

Bloom stepped to the side as Daily Californian reporter Dennis Wynne came over and said to Gossage, “Steve said you were tired.”

“Steve who?” Gossage responded.

“You know, Steve your manager.”

“Steve my manager said that?” Gossage replied. “Well, we’ll see exactly what he said. Come with me. You too, Barry. You can come too.

Gossage pounded on the manager’s door and yelled for him. Then he went inside. Bloom and Wynne followed. Boros was shaving.

“Did you say I was tired?” Gossage asked his manager.

“What I said, Rich, was that — ”

“Listen,” Gossage announced. “Don’t you tell me when I’m tired! I’ll tell you when I’m tired!”

Gossage stormed out of the office. Bloom felt sorry for the manager. In a way, he also felt sorry for Gossage. He followed the pitcher back to his locker and said to him, “Rick, I think your days in New York really ruined you.”

“Fuck you,” Gossage said as he pushed his face into Bloom’s. “You know what I’m going to do to you, Barry? I’m going to pick you up and take you outside and smash your head into that wall out there.”

“Go ahead, Rick,” Bloom said.

“I’m going to do it right now,” Gossage said.

“Go ahead, Rick. I’ll be happy to take your home in Tierrasanta.”

Fortunately, Gossage walked away.

I met Jim McMahon in 1989, when he joined the Chargers. Chris Jenkins was covering the team for the Union one day before the season began, and I was covering for the Trib, when we decided to talk with McMahon. He was escorted to the stadium newsroom by a Chargers PR staffer, who then left. We were sitting at a large table, and McMahon took a seat across from us. He was wearing dark sunglasses and a tank top.

Chris and I introduced ourselves. McMahon said nothing. He stared down at the table. The interview went something like this:

“Jim, are you learning the new system pretty easily?” Chris asked. McMahon didn’t look

up.

“Yep,” he said.

“Are you having any difficulty with it in any way?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“Do you like the passing system?”

“Yep.”

“What do you like about it?”

“I don’t know.”

On the table was a stack of statistics sheets. McMahon pulled the stack toward him and began leafing through the pages. He wasn’t reading, just leafing.

“Are you getting situated here in San Diego?” Chris asked.

“Yep.”

“Do you like it here?”

“Yep.”

“Have you bought a house yet?”

“Nope.”

McMahon still didn’t look up. He kept turning the pages of statistics.

“Are you happy with the Chargers receiving corps?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What do you think of Anthony Miller?”

“Good.”

“How so?”

“Don’t know.”

“Are you looking forward to the season?”

“Yep.”

“How good do you think this team can be?”

“Don’t know.”

“How’s your shoulder?”

“Fine.”

Chris and I looked at each other.

“Well,” Chris said. “I guess that’s all I need.”

“Me too,” I said.

“Cool,” McMahon muttered, and in the next moment he was out of his chair and gone.

McMahon hated sportswriters. (You can see why, considering those terrifying questions we bombarded him with.) So why did McMahon agree to be interviewed in the first place? He didn’t. NFL players are obligated by their contracts to “foster good public relations for the league.” In other words, they must meet with the press, at least occasionally.

I suppose we should have expected such behavior from the quarterback. The Today Show made arrangements the day McMahon was traded from the Bears to San Diego to interview him at the stadium the following morning. The set was prepared at 2:30 a.m., and host Bryant Gumbel was ready at 5:00 a.m. McMahon was due in an hour later. He didn’t show. The program began at 6:00 a.m. with Gumbel announcing that the quarterback would be arriving soon.

A Chargers PR staff member went to McMahon’s training camp room at UCSD to get him. McMahon wasn’t in bed. The staffer woke up quarterback Mark Vlasic, McMahon’s roommate. Vlasic said he hadn’t seen McMahon all night. Meantime, Gumbel was making periodic references to McMahon’s imminent arrival. It was rather embarrassing for NBC. Eventually, the show came to a close with Gumbel saying, “We apologize, but it seems as though something has happened to Jim McMahon.”

When McMahon arrived at camp later that day, his excuse was that he overslept. And that’s what the PR department had to tell NBC. The truth is, at a Mission Valley nightclub early that morning McMahon got into a scuffle in which he choked a transvestite. The police and the Chargers kept it a secret.

Following a loss to Seattle in October, McMahon was surrounded at his locker by reporters. Among the group was T.J. Simers, the Chargers beat writer for the Union. T.J. was a tough-minded journalist who wrote the truth. The Chargers were a bad team at the time. Not many players liked T.J.

Suddenly, without provocation, McMahon tilted his head back, covered one nostril with his finger, and rifled a wad of snot through the other, directly into T.J.’s ear. It was disgusting. And humiliating.

An offensive lineman revealed to me later that almost every player on the team approved of McMahon’s wretched act. “Why?” I asked. “Because we don’t like Simers,” he said. “Why not?” I asked. “Because he’s, uh...because he’s a jerk,” the lineman said. I wondered if the words “sportswriter” could be substituted for “jerk.” I didn’t ask.

Another time, cornerback Elvis Patterson sneaked up on T.J. from behind, threw a garbage bag over his head, and tried to toss him in the shower. Several players in the room laughed. It was like watching the fourth-grade bully picking on a weaker classmate. Today, T.J. Simers covers the Rams for the Los Angeles Times. Patterson is out of football.

Not all the Chargers were cold-hearted. Keilen Winslow was kind. So were Gill Byrd and Martin Bayless. Everyone knows about Rolf Benirschke. And Junior Seau remains gracious. But most of the players were infantile galoots. Professional athletes are stars in high school, so they’re conceited early on. They’re lured to a college where they’re coddled by administrators and given a free ride and passable courseload (a popular major is criminal justice, maybe so the athlete can figure a way to stay out of jail). Finally they’re drafted by the pros, showered with money, and idolized. Hard to maintain a perspective through all that. Maybe society is to blame. Maybe we create these monsters.

Rick Smith, the Chargers PR director for many years, was caught in the middle of this acrimonious relationship between reporters and players. Rick works today in the same capacity for the Rams. Rick says, “The press grinds on you to make players available, and the players bitch to you about the reporters. You tend to get buffeted. Everybody in the NFL has an ego. Players may not feel comfortable talking to the media, or a coach might be on them, or a girlfriend might be on them, or they’re just not very pleasant to begin with. Whatever it is, their first inclination is to strong-arm the reporter or blow him off.”

I was on the field for the last five minutes as the Chargers were beating the Dolphins in December 1991. The Dolphins were rallying when Dan Marino was penalized for intentional grounding. As gifted as he is, Marino is a consummate crybaby. He argued the call, then on the next play threw an interception to Chargers safety Stanley Richard to ensure the loss. At the final gun, Marino tore off the field and up the tunnel. I followed him.

“Where are the fuckin’ officials?” he screamed. “I want the officials!”

He ran down the hallway, knocked teammate Jim Jensen into the wall, and kept on going.

“Where’s the goddamn officials’ locker room?” he demanded.

A security guard gestured for him to continue down the hall. A few steps later, Marino arrived at a door. It was his own visitors’ locker room.

“Goddamnit,” he yelled. “Where’s the fuckin’ officials?”

He stormed farther down the hall until he reached a red door — to the San Diego State locker room.

“Aw, fuck it!” he said before turning around and stomping back to his own locker room.

After showering, Marino arrived at his cubicle, where a dozen reporters were waiting for him. He called the referee “a fucker” and answered a number of questions about the game. Then I asked him about his post-game tirade.

“Why were you trying to find the officials after the game?” I asked.

“What are you talking about?” he said.

“When the game ended, you ran up the tunnel screaming for the officials’ locker room,” I said.

The other reporters were silent, wondering what I was talking about.

“No, I didn’t,” he said, glaring at me.

“I followed you,” I said. “You ran down the hall and wound up at the San Diego State locker room.”

“Never happened,” he said.

“How can you say that?” I asked. “I was behind you the whole way.”

“Look, man, it never happened. Next question.”

The interview ended soon after, and I walked away in utter disbelief. I talked to a few more players for my story and was leaving the locker room when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around. It was Marino.

“Hey, man,” he said as he leaned into me, “if you print that, I’m gonna kick your ass!”

“Print what?” I said.

“You know,” he said. “If you write that shit, I’m coming after you.” He pointed a finger at me and said, “Remember that.”

I wrote it the next day. I didn’t mention the threat. I’m still waiting for him to come by.

More than anything else from my job, I was sobered to learn that athletes were immature and irresponsible. To me, growing up, athletes were something to admire, to marvel at.

Talking twice with ultra-hero Joe Montana and learning that he is dense; seeing Dave Stewart and James Worthy and Courtney Hall, athletes with whom I shared a pleasant conversation, go out and get busted with hookers; hearing athletes privately criticize the stupidity of fans and then go sign autographs — all of it helped me see that professional athletes are just guys who play a game. Certainly nothing to idolize.

Jose Canseco stood outside the A’s dugout several hours before a game in Oakland one afternoon where a lone boy at the railing could see him. The boy was no older than ten, and he had a speech impediment.

“Can-thako,” the boy called out. “Ho-they Can-thako.”

Canseco didn’t turn around. He stared out to the field, but he sneaked a peek in the boy’s direction. The boy was holding up a baseball and a pen.

“Can-thako. Ho-they Can-thako. Pleath, Mr. Can-thako. Pleath.”

Canseco kept his head steady toward the field. Then he turned around and came in the dugout. The boy stopped calling for him.

“What a fuckin’ idiot,” Canseco said with a laugh. “The kid can’t even talk.”

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut was hired early in his writing career by Sports Illustrated to write an article about a racehorse that took a circuitous route across the infield and over a fence to finish first in a race. Vonnegut sat at his typewriter for a while, then got up, walked out of the room, and never came back. On his typewriter was a single sentence — “The horse jumped over the fucking fence.”

If you don’t believe sports is meaningful, you cannot be a good sportswriter.

When I realized the insignificance of sports, I was done for. It was just a matter of time. I was surrounded by people who believed what they were doing was the most important thing on the planet. From where they stood, the real world was invisible. I had to buy into it or I was kaput.

In 1990 I went to Oakland with Pete Egoscue, an anatomical functionalist (physical therapist) from Del Mar who works with athletes and who was checking on the Golden State Warriors basketball team.

Warriors coach Don Nelson greeted Egoscue on the floor of the Coliseum Arena. “Who’s he?” Nelson said pointing at me.

“He’s with me,” Egoscue said. “He’s doing a story about me for a San Diego paper.”

“Oh,” Nelson said.

I introduced myself.

“Listen,” the coach said. “You can’t write about anything you see here today.”

“But that’s why I’m here,” I said. “That’s why I came.”

Nelson didn’t argue. We walked together to the training room, where he stopped me at the door. “Wait here,” he said. Nelson went in with Egoscue, and in a moment the team PR director came out.

“Since you’re with Pete,” the PR guy said in a hushed voice, “you can come inside. But you can’t write about anything you see. This is highly secret stuff. Top secret.”

We went inside. Some players were lifting weights, and others were on the floor in stretching positions prescribed by Egoscue. It was all familiar to me. I’d been to Egoscue’s clinic and seen the routine.

“No reporter’s ever been in here,” the PR guy said with a straight face. “This is top-secret stuff. You’re getting a very special treat to see this.”

It looked like the Miramar Family Fitness Center. What was the big deal?

“Remember,” coach Nelson said to me before we left, “not a word. Okay?”

“Sure,” I said. There was nothing to write about anyway.

Not having something to write about — that predicament arose with regularity when writing about the Chargers. How many middle-of-the-week stories can you do about a team that goes 6-10 every year? But that s what the paper wanted.

The players used to hang out at Petricca’s restaurant on Morena Boulevard. Tony Petricca represented the model die-hard fan who suffered through the Dan Henning era. Tony was especially frustrated during the middle of another lousy season when I wrote a story about him. Tony had season tickets for many years but said he was so upset he couldn’t bear to see another Chargers game as long as Henning was coach. The story appeared in the paper the next day, and the Chargers front-office people were pissed. They wanted to know why I didn’t write a second story about a happy Chargers fan. I told them it would be difficult to find one. They said, “We’ll get Petricca for this.” “For what?” I asked. “For criticizing our team,” they said. “He just voiced an opinion shared by many,” I said. They didn’t listen.

The next Sunday the Chargers played at home against Tampa Bay. Petricca gave his ticket to USD basketball coach Hank Egan. When Hank arrived at the stadium, he had no place to sit down. Petricca’s seat had been ripped out. Hank went home.

The Chargers organization is different today. Winning or losing, it’s a better working environment. Easygoing general manager Bobby Beathard has weeded out most of the pompous personnel. Beathard himself replaced perhaps the most overbearing snob of all, Steve Ortmayer. Henning was just a crummy coach with a lot of Irish pug in him, but Ortmayer was a scoundrel. One former employee says Ortmayer suffered from “a bunker mentality.” The sad part of it is, Ort’s haughty personality filtered through the organization.

The Dawg Pound is a renowned end zone section at Cleveland Municipal Stadium where Browns fanatics go crazy. When I arrived at the stadium for a Browns-Chargers game on a cold December day in 1986, I went down on the field to see these crazies. The section was packed more than an hour before kickoff. Some fans were wearing ugly dog masks (though they were hard to distinguish from the rest), and snowballs were flying everywhere. Men were drinking and yelling and barking and hurling dog biscuits and batteries at people on the field. I walked over to a game official who was standing at the ten-yard line, and we both looked up at the stands. “God, I hate this place,” he said. “I never feel safe here.”

When I returned to the press box, a member of the Chargers organization approached me.

“Jeff, you shouldn’t be down on the field,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because. Sportswriters are supposed to be in the press box.”

“But the game’s an hour off,” I said.

“You’re representing the San Diego Chargers today,” he told me. “We’re a first-class operation. You’re with the big-time now. We keep our sportswriters in the press box.”

“I represent the San Diego Tribune, not the Chargers,” I said. “And the media is allowed on the field before the game.”

“Not in my book,” he said. “Don’t you understand? We’re first class, not coach. Our sportswriters are supposed to be in the press box.”

“Whatever,” I said.

A Cleveland reporter overheard the exchange. “What’s the big deal?” he said. “I go on the field all the time. We all do.” The “first-class operation” Chargers lost the game 47-17 to end another losing season.

Chargers linebacker Gary Plummer and I grew up in the same hometown. We shared common interests and talked a lot. When I told him one day that I was considering leaving the business, he said it was the best thing I could do. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “I would never be a sportswriter no matter how much they paid me.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“I like sports too much to ruin it,” he said.

I knew what he meant, but he explained it anyway.

“Players don’t like sportswriters,” he said. “Why would anyone want to always be talking with guys who didn’t like them?”

I had to agree.

Then the merger hit, the newsroom wall fell, and the U and the T became the U-T. My boss, Tribune sports editor Bill Pinella, was put in charge of the afternoon edition — in other words, benched. Union sports editor Bob Wright was put in control of the new staff. Morale among the writers and copy editors was in the gutter.

I spent much of the first two months after the merger investigating the sordid world of pro wrestling. Not my favorite topic, but a story that needed to be written. I had been working 12-hour days for about two months.

Bob Wright got involved in the project exactly once, when I met with a group of editors to discuss the story. They were concerned about a lawsuit because I was making some serious allegations against the World Wrestling Federation involving drugs, rape, and other sexual offenses. After seeing the boldness of the three-part series, the editors wanted to cancel it. I had good sources and knew the allegations to be true, and I spent an hour trying to talk them into running the stories. Wright did not support me — not that I expected him to.

“How can you be sure the WWT won’t sue the paper?” one editor asked.

“Because the WWF has never filed a lawsuit in its history,” I said. “It doesn’t want a procession of witnesses taking the stand exposing its dirty affairs.”

We were having an educated conversation when Bob spoke up. “But you just said the WWF was involved in a lawsuit with [a wrestler],” he said.

“Yes, Bob, they were,” I said. “But they settled out of court, just as they always do.”

“So they sued someone then,” he said.

“No, they were sued by the wrestler. They filed a countersuit, which is standard practice when a company is sued. But they did not file the lawsuit. They did not initiate the litigation. They countersued.”

“Well, same thing,” he said.

The editors were silent.

The stories eventually ran (though they were greatly toned down), and the national media swept in. I was on radio talk shows in New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Dallas within a week and helped producers for Entertainment Tonight, Donahue, and Larry King Live prepare shows on the subject. I received a memo after the first story ran from U-T editor Karin Winner, which read, “Jeff. Excellent work on the WWF. It reads very well, is full of good documentation and thorough research. You left the L.A. Times’ piece this morning in the dust. Looking forward to your next installment. Nice going. Karin.” Another of the stories won the San Diego Press Club 1992 sportswriting story of the year.

Bob Wright never said a word to me.

I visited the Murph for the last time as a sportswriter on April 11, 1992. The Padres improved the stadium (if you can’t change the players, might as well change the grass), and I went out to do a ho-hum story on the upgrades. A new type of infield grass was planted, mostly because shortstop Tony Fernandez complained so much about it the previous year. I approached Tony on the field before the game. He was standing alone, doing nothing.

“Tony, can I talk to you for a minute,” I said.

“Nah, man, I don’t got nothing to talk about,” he said.

“It’s a story for the Union-Tribune about the new infield,” I said. “I just want your opinion of it.”

“Nah, I don’t know nothing about it,” he said.

“You played on it last night,” I persisted. “Do you like it better than last year’s grass?”

“I ain’t gonna talk about nothin’,” he said. “Get outta my face.”

The grass changed. The players hadn’t.

A while later I stood behind the batting cage next to manager Greg Riddoch. I told him I was seriously considering leaving the sportswriting business.

“I don’t blame you,” Riddoch said. “Who would want to work with these idiot players.”

I told him about Tony Fernandez’s unwillingness to talk about a benign story like the new grass.

“Tony Fernandez is a jerk,” Riddoch said. “He makes a million dollars a year and he’s an unhappy person. Go figure that out.”

I suggested that Tony’s attitude is not unusual among athletes.

“A lot of players are jerks,” Riddoch said. “It didn’t used to be that way. Money changed them. There’s exceptions like Tony Gwynn. But a lot of them are spoiled brats. Do you know that I have to babysit Benito Santiago every damn day? He’s a baby. Any little thing not exactly to his liking and he whines and whines. A lot of these guys are that way. It’s the money. And the egos.”

I wrote a story in mid-April about a man with no legs and one arm who overcame years of drunken despair by learning to swim. He became so fast in the water that he qualified for the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona, only he didn’t have the funds to go. I talked with him twice by telephone and then went on a Saturday to see him swim in a local meet. I wrote the story the next day, and it appeared in Monday’s paper. The office was flooded with calls from caring people who had read the story. In three days we received letters and donations from 57 people totaling more than $3000 — enough for the swimmer to go to Spain. The story was a success, and I felt good about it. On Thursday, Bob Wright stopped by my desk.

“Did you get the results of that meet you went to on Saturday?” he asked.

“Results?” I said. “No, Bob, I was out there to do a feature on the swimmer.”

“Well, next time get the results,” he said with disdain. Then he walked away.

At that moment I decided to quit. I could have sought a transfer to another department, maybe writing breezy stories for “Currents” or copy editing, but the incident left such a sour taste that I had to leave the building.

And it wasn’t just me. Since the merger on February 2,1992, 11 people have left the U-T sports department. One distraught sportswriter says he spends the first hour every morning chanting to himself, “Don’t quit today. Don’t quit today. Don’t quit today.”

Wright’s glass-enclosed office is dubbed the “Shark Tank.” One of his routines is to step from his tank and announce an employee’s name followed by, “Got a minute?” Heads sag at the sound of this.

Ed Graney’s name was called one day. Wright spent the next few minutes yelling at the sportswriter for supposedly missing some key elements of a story. Finally Graney interrupted his boss. “Uh, Bob,” he said, “could you take a look at the byline.” Another reporter had written the story. Graney was released from the tank. Then, a few days later, in Graney’s newsroom mailbox was that same story, the story he didn’t write, marked up by Wright in red pen.

In January 1993, columnist Nick Canepa was not included on the schedule to cover the Super Bowl in Los Angeles. Nick is the most entertaining writer on the staff and knows football as well as anyone. He asked Wright why he wasn’t going.

“Because we only got passes for three guys,” Wright said.

“Really?” Nick said. “Only three? Well, I think I can get a fourth.”

“You can?” Wright said. “Okay. See what you can do.”

Nick pushed some NFL buttons and secured a fourth press pass. He informed Wright.

“Hey, that’s great,” Wright said.

“So, when do you want me to go up?” Nick asked.

“Oh, I’m not giving it to you,” Wright said.

What can be done? Probably not much. A change should come from the top. Tom Cushman is a nice guy and a master craftsman, but he isn’t a hands-on department head. He spends more time finding new and ingenious ways to describe Don King’s hair than he does fixing staff problems. And that’s as it should be. Cushman should be left to write.

A new sports editor would be in position to make some overdue changes:

Nick Canepa’s “Sez Me” column is the best thing in the paper. He should write it more than once a week. The section needs more columnists. Mark Ziegler is sharp and insightful. Make him one.

Expand pro football coverage during the season. Tom Krasovic is the best beat writer on the staff; he should cover the Chargers. Jerry Magee should write more about football and less about anything else. And so should Jim Trotter.

Less coverage of non-Olympic-year events. The USOC? Who cares? Less auto racing coverage. More local golf. And how about a men’s local softball story once in a while? Bill Center is the most versatile writer on the staff, but really, how many people read about yachting and Thunderboats? Fewer stories about salary caps and arbitration, more about people.

Chris Jenkins should write more. Talent going to waste. And Ed Graney is clever and writes with feeling. Get him off the preps and into the pros. Ed Zieralski’s scenic outdoor stories should be on the front page with color art. Don Norcross works harder on a story than anyone. He should do features. Fritz Quindt should write anything he wants.

Keep Buster Olney on the Padres and give him the national baseball column as well. Give Phil Collier a golden parachute. Wayne Lockwood should step it up or step out. He’s known among staffers as “Cliff Clavin,” the postman on Cheers, because he “just mails it in.”

Finally, have staff meetings with open, honest discussions. Hire a writing coach. Communicate. Fix things. Just leave me out of it.

You may not agree with any of this. You may be a sports fan, reveling in the Chargers’ fast start, blubbering over the baseball strike, chirping like a cricket about the fastest track times or latest PGA Tour winner. Me, I’ve seen the innards of this beast, seen it all.

Above all, in my new career as a children’s book author, I have seen that the professional athlete is much like a child. And like a child, he believes he is the center around which the world revolves. Unlike the child, he ought to know better. I was there when Jose Canseco laughed at the boy with the lisp. I’ve seen enough.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader

Comments

Log in to comment

Skip Ad