Sports writing career reaches the finish line
Published: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 10:58 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 10:58 a.m.
Parting is such sweet sorrow, so said Juliet to Romeo.
Not for me.
Ain't no sorrow here, folks.
How could there be? When I look into the mirror all I do is see myself smiling when I think of the people I have gotten to know. Sarah Sumpter, John Goelz, J.T. Snow, Reed Carter, Brian Sabean, Arthur Webb, Art Howe, Lenny Wagner, Dusty Baker, Julia Stamps, Jill McCormick, Jerry Robinson, Jay Higgins, Chris Mullin, Jason Franci and, hey, I'm just getting warmed up.
For the first time since the spring of 1964, when I was a high school senior, I will not be working for a daily newspaper. I am retiring from The Press Democrat after 26 years and from the business after 50.
Terrific, people say. Now you get to do what you want to do. There's only one problem — I'm already doing it.
“I am offering you a job as a crime reporter at the Miami Herald,” George Beebe told me when I was 21. George was the managing editor of the Herald and on a recruiting trip to the University of Florida. It was 1968. I was a senior.
“What?” said George, looking more confused than insulted. “Why do you want to stay in sports? Nothing happens there. It's games. It's kids PLAYING.”
I remember George emphasized “playing.”
I so wish I could talk to George now. I'd talk to him about real courage I have seen in my life in sports.
I would tell him about Cassie Petersen, how she was born deaf, without a left ear, and yet was a star softball pitcher for Analy. George should have met St. Vincent's Jacalyn Murphy, who gets up early every day to undergo an hour's worth of treatment for her cystic fibrosis, so she can go to school and play basketball. George should have met Windsor's Xerxes Whitney. Xerxes is the high school's tennis coach, loved, no, adored by all because he refuses to carp, complain or otherwise draw sympathy to the fact he has cerebral palsy.
Back in the day when I covered pro sports exclusively, I thought courage was hanging in there when 6-foot-10 Randy Johnson released that missile fastball. I was wrong. That batter was paid to stand in there to take his hacks.
Mendocino football player Reed Carter, on the other hand, has the kind of courage I have not seen in the NFL, NBA or MLB. In a 13-month period that started when he was 12, Reed's mother died in a car accident, his brother spent six months in a body brace, and his father was diagnosed with cancer that required him to live apart from the family for five months. Reed has gone through hell and back and he didn't do it for money or fame or acclaim. He refused to submit because he wanted to make something of his life. And he has, stunningly.
Someone once asked me which teams I root for.
“I don't,” I replied. “I root for people.”
Look, I won't kid you. I hate the Yankees. But after 10 minutes speaking with Derek Jeter for the first time, I became a fan, a fan of his dignity, class and integrity. Subsequent multiple interviews confirmed that. I would never apologize for having Derek Jeter playing shortstop on my baseball team.
Rooting for a team doesn't feel nearly as interesting, intimate and rewarding for me as rooting for a person. Rooting for a team is like rooting for laundry, as Seinfeld once said. That no matter who is wearing the uniform, the team is unconditionally supported and cheered to hoarseness.
I felt like that. Once. Then I got to know Barry Bonds. From 2001-2002, Bonds had the two most productive, sensational seasons I'd ever seen in baseball. Disregarding any additives that he may or may not have ingested, injected, rubbed, licked, snorted or dissolved into lemonade, Bonds was the best baseball player I ever saw, after Willie Mays. Still, I couldn't wait for Bonds to leave the Giants. Neither could the Giants.
Sports are not simple. They are complicated. This is as good a time as any to bring up Cardinal Newman High School.
Way back I started a blog with the words “Cardinal Newman.” That's all I wrote. Nothing else. The response was, to say, amusing. You're a Newman grad. You've always loved Newman. You're on their payroll, etc., etc., etc.
The animosity for Newman around here is thick, no question. However, I looked at Newman another way. Paul Cronin and Dennis Bruno can coach my kid any day in football. Tom Bonfigli could teach my son the pick-and-roll and I wouldn't regret it. I saw the Newman people the way they presented themselves to me.
I tend to approach people that way. That has served me well when dealing with people who like to whisper, to anonymously accuse, to wear jealousy like a badge. I have no such prejudice nor do I want to waste my time. I only have a very deep and abiding appreciation of where I live and who I have met here.
I saw coaches who were remarkably gifted teachers, sincerely dedicated to their athletes: Trent Herzog, Steve Ellison, Craig McMillan, Dan Bourdon, Dan Sack, Jennifer Bridges, Paul Maytorena, Les Richardson, Dan Greaves, Brett Page, Debra LaPrath, Gary Galloway, James Forni and Tom Fitchie. They can coach my kids anytime.
I saw athletes who represent the very best of the Olympic ideal, of body, mind and spirit: Kahlil Keys, Kim Conley, Alissa Geving, Sara Bei, Amanda Johnson, Jacob Gowan, Drew Kemp, Al Netter, Jacque Taylor and JaJuan Lawson. They can play for me anytime.
I saw school administrators who made things happen instead of preventing them from happening: Mike Roan, Marie Sugiyama, Joanne Ferris, Joe Elwood, Dean Haskins, Frank Scalercio, Rick O'Brien and Alan Petty. They can run my league anytime.
I saw game officials who epitomize integrity and fairness, who provide the blueprint on how to run a game: Pete Dardis, Mark Reischling and, especially, Ruben Candelaria. Ruben, I'll never forget what you did for Chris Sparrow. You made it possible for Chris, Analy's 4-foot-6 equipment manager who was born with dwarfism, to enter the last game of his senior season and shoot free throw after free throw until he scored the only point of his career. It was one of the most special moments I was privileged to write about.
I saw former professional athletes who reminded me that not all professionals are whining, self-obsessed, trash-talking, foot-stomping egotists who need to be sent to their room without dinner: Tony Moll, Noah Lowry, Bob St. Clair, Ben Lynch, Keith Dorney, Stephen Cozza and Larry Allen. And then the former Newman and Raiders star Jerry Robinson. JR, thanks for letting me in.
Levi Leipheimer, I know we don't talk much these days, but I did enjoy our relationship when we had it. And I always will be grateful for you loving Sonoma County.
Maria Carrillo football coach Jay Higgins, I told you I never met a more honest and courageous individual. I appreciate that you took the time to tell me about what was happening to your beloved Sonya, how you found out your wife had leukemia and how you were going to deal with it.
Former SRJC athletic trainer Byron Craighead, you need to go on the public speaking circuit. “Live, from New York, it's Byron Craighead and the Stories You Just Won't Believe!” Like when you climbed Mount Shasta in your ski boots just so you could ski to the bottom.
SSU men's basketball coach Pat Fuscaldo, text me when you get laryngitis. Text me what it's like when you can't talk. Because when I've had the privilege of hearing you speak, I've often been caught up in the hurricane of words.
SSU women's basketball coach Mark Rigby, call me sometime and leave for me on my voicemail that contagious laugh you have, the kind of laugh that when you hear it, you can't help but start laughing, too.
Former Healdsburg cross country runner Sarah Sumpter, my heart always skips a beat when you call me Uncle Bob. The way you dealt with your eating disorder has become for me a template for bravery and personal growth.
Well, that takes care of the past six years. How about the 44 that preceded it? I could talk about being jailed in Alabama, or being thrown to the ground and kicked by a Dolphins defensive back, or how I got pranked in the Philadelphia 76ers locker room, or how John Matuszak placed his right hand on my left knee and kept it there for an entire 30-minute interview.
I could tell a story about each entry my in phone list, the one I developed during the past six years, the one with 1,207 names on it. Which means I'm going to wake up tomorrow and kick myself for not mentioning Michael Darby and Rick Krist and Nick Sherry and Les Richardson …
How can I not smile about my time here? How can I not remember with fondness these people, along with at least a thousand others? How can I not be grateful they let me into their lives and trusted me to tell their story?
This last column is not written with sadness but, rather, regret. I wish it was 1987 all over again. I wish I could put in another 26 years at The Press Democrat. With these people. For these people. If only.
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