I'm not going to go all FDR and call Jan. 15, 2009, a date which will live in infamy, but ...
The previous evening, I had received this email from a GateHouse Media mid-level manager:
We need to have you come into the office at 10 a.m. tomorrow.
When Roberta asked me what I thought the cryptic message meant, I said: "Well, I don't think they're calling me in to tell me my last column won the Pulitzer Prize."
Braving blizzard-like conditions, I drove the 30 miles from Lakeview to Downers Grove and was greeted by somber-faced GateHousians. Yes, I was being laid off. No, there would be no severance pay, as that longstanding policy had been terminated along with me. Yes, I would receive compensation for my unused vacation time (but not before they tried to job me out of several weeks of it). No, I would not be allowed to write a farewell column to the readers who had gotten to know me over the previous 11 years.
Just like that, I was an ex-columnist, an ex-sportswriter, an ex-newspaper man, an ex-journalist, an ex-working stiff. All I had ever known professionally was kaput.
GateHouse was going broke. Its stock price had plummeted near zero. It needed every available cent to lavish salary increases and bonuses on its top executives. (A practice that continues to this day even though the company is even more broke. Ah, capitalism!) So, even though I had been reassured just one month earlier that my position was in the budget for 2009, it wasn't exactly shocking that the pencil-necked geeks had deemed me a luxury they chose not to afford.
Sometimes it's hard to believe it's been five years since I was a full-time sports hack. Other times, it seems like forever ago.
I spent the better part of two years trying to get a decent job in the field. I wrote freelance articles for AP, my employer from 1982-1998. I kept writing this blog and, for a while, let the Chicago Tribune publish it. Some months, my check from the Tribune totaled as much as 18 whole dollars! I am not making that up. When I told my editor there I no longer wanted to write for 1/5th of a cent per hour, he actually seemed insulted. I had a guy at one Chicago online sports site jerk my chain for nearly a year: Yes, we might hire you; no, we don't have the budget for it; wait, maybe we do; no, actually, we don't.
Enough. In the summer of 2010, when my wife had the opportunity to work at Charlotte's children's hospital, we decided to move on, literally and figuratively.
Aside from the tripe I occasionally post here on TBT, I have not written a single sports story since becoming a North Carolinian. I write personal finance articles about once a month for SeekingAlpha.com, I do some "survivor stories" for the American Heart Association and I've written a few op-eds for the Charlotte Observer, but mostly I have left that part of my life behind.
I am fortunate that, at 53, I am not hurting financially because Roberta and I were big savers, because we have no debt and because she is a wonderful Sugar Mama. So I earn a little dough doing stuff I want to do, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of being a coach, a referee and an umpire, among other things.
Nobody likes to be told they no longer can come to work. We want the decision to be ours, not theirs. But life gets messy sometimes, so we adjust on the fly.
Do I miss it? Sure, some of it. Not all of it.
In honor of the fifth anniversary of GateHouse sending me on permanent vacation, here are five things I miss about my former life. But first, just for giggles and snorts, five things I don't miss ...
WHAT I DON'T MISS
When my son was little, his friends would ask, "Does your dad get to talk to Michael Jordan?" I told him to respond: "No, Michael Jordan gets to talk to my dad." It was a cute line, especially when delivered by an 8-year-old, but it wasn't true. From 1995-98, I spent a huge portion of my life standing around waiting to be part of a big media scrum around Michael Jordan.
For the most part -- and definitely by the time the new millennium had arrived -- everything was packaged for the media. We were led around from one press conference to another. Comments usually were generic. I'd sit down to transcribe my tape and realize I hadn't gotten one freakin' quote worth using.
On the rare occasion that a coach or athlete said something remotely funny, the press corps would pretend to laugh as if Steve Martin and George Carlin were on stage trading barbs. It was embarrassing.
People thought we were lucky that we got to talk to these guys, but more often than not they had nothing to say. When we did get to cover an Ozzie Guillen or a Jeremy Roenick or even a Milton Bradley, it was like manna from heaven. Mostly, the routine became a chore. These guys didn't particularly want to talk to us and, for the most part, I didn't want to talk to them.
When I was with AP, the slogan was "a deadline every minute." And yes, we did have to write quickly. But as I discovered when I became a columnist, there are deadlines and then there really are deadlines. If the game didn't end until 1 a.m. when I was with AP, I still waited to write until it was over. But if I didn't have my column in on time when I was with Copley (and, later, GateHouse), the newspapers I served would run something else in its place -- maybe even an advertisement.
As newspapers strove for earlier and earlier delivery, the deadlines became earlier and earlier, and I often had to write before an event had ended. If the event was big enough, as when the White Sox were in the 2005 World Series and Game 3 went 14 innings, I'd do several versions of the column for all the different editions of the papers.
Not to make it sound like I was mining coal in West Virginia but it wasn't easy!
The Internet Effect.
When I agreed to start blogging in 2007 (in addition to the columns I already was writing), I didn't get one more cent out of it. What I did get was a ton more work to do, thank you.
Couple the sheer workload with the immediacy of the Internet and there's no such thing as putting a story to bed. In addition, readers suddenly had the right to comment anonymously and in real time. It's always fun to be called a douchebag by some guy who goes by Illini69.
My last year and a half in Chicago, I covered a lot of baseball games as a freelancer for AP and I was in awe at the amount of work -- and the quality of the work -- that the city's baseball writers did: blogs and tweets and photos and notes and game stories and feature stories and graphics. Incredible. Day after day, all year long -- because there no longer is an offseason in baseball, what with all the news that takes place from November to March. Honestly, I doubt there is a more difficult newspaper job in America than baseball beat writer. It was always tough, but the Internet has made it ridiculous.
When I columnized about Erin Andrews' inappropriate behavior in the Cubbie clubhouse, I knew it would be read by a lot of people. But I severely underestimated the Internet effect and her popularity out in cyberspace. For some two weeks, I became a target out there in Dweeb Land. It was interesting ... and a little bit scary.
"Wow. You Get To Go To Games For Free?"
Later in this post, I acknowledge that my job carried a certain amount of prestige, or at least the perception of prestige. At the same time, plenty of folks thought my job consisted of hobnobbing with the athletes, relaxing at the ballpark and rooting on the home team.
Even some of my family members and close friends used to "joke" about how easy I had it, as if they knew. And what was I going to do, get mad and defend myself by telling them how much work I was doing? So I usually went the self-deprecating route instead.
Once, one of my relatives was complaining about all the housework she had to do. After a few minutes, I interrupted and said, "Hey, you're only a housewife. I have to go to football games for a living!"
When I was with AP, I was almost always stressed out. It was a high-pressure job, and talking with friends who are still with the company, it appears that is even more the case now. I excelled under pressure, but that doesn't mean it was easy or fun to deal with. There were several occasions I would wake up in a cold sweat at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. and realize I had left something out of the final version of my story (a.k.a., the dreaded PMer, a rewrite for afternoon newspapers). I would call the office to make the correction.
By 2006 or so, there were constant rumors that David Copley was going to get out of the newspaper business and sell all of our properties (he did), that the new owner would care only about profit and not about journalism (yep), and that GateHouse would clean house (bingo!). It was a stressful time.
Then, of course, there was the stress I put upon myself. I never was able to "mail it in" on even the most routine AP stories, so I really tortured myself when writing my column. If I wasn't on deadline, I would read, re-read and re-re-read my column until I didn't find even one comma out of place. Sometimes, I would be 3 or 4 hours into a column and say, out loud, "This is complete crap." I'd delete the whole freakin' thing and start over. Not only was my name on my column, but so was my ugly mug. I put a lot of myself in most of what I wrote. It was only a story about a jock or a game, but it still mattered, and I had to do it right.
Now, I live a mostly stress-free existence. Maybe one of the things I like about coaching, refereeing and umpiring is the immediacy of each moment, a non-journalism way to get a little stress back into my life.
I got to see the world, all on somebody else's dime. Many of the trips were mundane -- flying into Detroit for a night game and then going back home the next morning was far from exhilarating -- but I also got to go to some amazing places.
AP sent me to five Olympics (Calgary '88, Albertville '92, Lillehammer '94, Atlanta '96, Nagano '98) and dispatched me all over North America covering hockey, basketball, baseball and football.
During the first three years I was Copley's columnist, I got to manage my own travel budget, and my only restriction was that I shouldn't go over budget. I took full advantage, giving myself some great assignments. In the process, I learned how to stretch a dollar when making travel arrangements, a skill that still serves me well.
After Copley sold its Chicago papers and I became more aligned with the fine folks of Central Illinois, I still had a lot of input into where I traveled. A few times, I even got to fly on David Copley's private jet to the California desert resort town of Borrego Springs for editor meetings. I felt like a VIP, even though I wasn't one.
Every once in awhile, I got to write something that actually touched readers. When I wrote a column after my dad passed away, I received more than 100 condolence letters -- not email, mind you, but actual hand-written letters, including one from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin. When I wrote about my daughter getting ready to graduate high school and leave home, lots of people told me the column made them shed a tear.
One time after covering a Cardinals-Cubs game, I ran into a guy outside Busch Stadium, and he pulled from his wallet a folded, tattered copy of the column I had written years earlier about Darryl Kile's death. That's right: The guy actually carried it around with him.
I got paid to express myself through my observations and my words, and that was pretty damn cool.
As a reporter, I occasionally got a scoop, and watching my peers have to play catch-up for a day or two always was an amazing feeling.
One thing I really used to love was sitting in the media room after a huge event, the only sound being thousands of fingers banging away at laptop keyboards.
Let's not sugarcoat things: We work for money. In addition to being able to buy things we needed and wanted, that regular paycheck helped me and Roberta sock away money for the future.
Who knew the future was going to arrive -- with a thud -- just a few months after I turned 48?
The Press Box.
Basically, sportswriters are a bunch of adolescent goofballs. As we watch the Cubs collapse, the Bears fall apart and the Bulls implode, anything that enters our warped minds somehow finds its way out of our foul mouths. The amount of crapola we spew about the jocks we cover is topped only by the amount of crap we give each other.
I miss debating my peers about important issues such as our Hall of Fame ballots, which Chicago coach or manager would be the next to be fired, and whether Jay Mariotti was the worst human being we ever had encountered or just one of the bottom two.
Sadly, even before I was sacked, many of my best friends in the industry had been sent packing or been reassigned by their employers, so the press box wasn't what it used to be.
I never considered my job to be particularly glamorous, but others did. I could be in a room filled with million-dollar lawyers or doctors ... and all of them thought I had the best job.
On its good days -- and there were many -- they were right.
As is the case with folks in most professions, my job gave me an identity. Five years later, I still struggle a little when asked, "And what do you do?"
Am I retired? Semi-retired? A freelance writer? A coach? A part-time golf ranger? An ex-journalist? All of those things are true, none rolls off my tongue like: "I'm a sports columnist, and you?"
As stressful and frustrating as it occasionally was, I never lost sight of the fact that what I did for a living was considered a dream job by many.
You know what? It was considered a dream job by me, too.