Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Southerners are weather wimps!

The wimpiness of Southerners when it comes to weather would be funny ... if it didn't mess with my plans. (Because, of course, it is all about me!)

My Scholars Academy Eagles are on a three-game losing streak, as we just played the three best teams in our league. We hung in there against the first two, but we were overwhelmed by our most recent opponent. Thankfully, in our final two regular-season games, we face teams we already have beaten, giving us an outstanding opportunity to take a little winning streak into the conference tournament.

Here I am earlier in the season, doing some serious strategizing and motivating.

Our first of those two games was scheduled for this afternoon ... until the weather forecast just got too foreboding.

My friends and family in Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Philly and other non-wimpy provinces will laugh at this, but panic set in because snow was forecast to start falling at noon today with accumulations of -- here it comes, folks; grab your kids and run for the hills! -- 1 to 2 inches possible. That's not a typo: 1 to 2 freakin' inches!

That forecast was enough to put the local media on DEFCON 1-to-2 -- which in turn was enough to make the private school we were supposed to play decide to close early, thereby canceling the game. (Later in the day, Charlotte public schools also decided to close early.)

In addition to this being one we had a great chance of winning, Roberta had arranged to get the day off work and was going to get to see her hubby coach for the first time. Plus, it being our last regular-season home game, we were going to honor our 8th-graders at halftime. For so many reasons, I hope it gets rescheduled. (See, it isn't all about me!)

Anyway, as I type this a few minutes after noon, the sun is peeking out through the clouds. The most recent forecast says the snow won't start until at least 5 p.m.

What a bunch of wimps. No wonder they lost the Civil War!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Colbert on college football "slaves" ... also, kudos to consumers for bringing delicious salsa back to Costco

Funny bit by Stephen Colbert the other night:

I'm a huge fan of college football. It's got all the grace and athleticism of pro football, but the players don't make any money. They're in it for the love of not getting paid.

I have no interest in jaded "professionals" who do things "for money." Same reason I just don't enjoy watching people pick cotton anymore.

The studio audience groaned a little at the picking cotton reference. OK, college athletes aren't really slaves. Still, there's a lot of "truthiness" to the comparison.

I'd love to see college athletes in the revenue sports go on strike for a month. There would be some swift changes, including a stipend that would let these laborers at least buy a pizza, a beer (if they're 21, of course) and a tank of gas without having to worry about breaking NCAA rules.


Crazy weather here in Charlotte. On Monday, I walked the dog in shorts and a t-shirt. (Note to readers: I was the one in the clothing, not Simmie.) When I took her out today, I wore a winter coat, scarf, gloves and hat. (Note to readers: I also had other clothing on in addition to those items.)

You know what they say about Charlotte weather: If you don't like it, wait a minute and it will change.

And they only say that about weather in Charlotte, so I don't want to hear from folks in New England or Florida or Chicago or anywhere else claiming they say the same thing about other places.

Because they don't. And if you want them to, you'll have to go get your own "they."


Who says the "little guy" can't make a big difference?

Costco used to carry a product called Santa Barbara Mango with Peach Salsa. Once or twice a week, I'd make a lunch out of the salsa and Stacy's pita chips, washing it all down with a refreshing iced tea (unsweetened, with lemon). Filling, tasty and even borderline good for me! Robbie and I also loved the salsa, along with guacamole, on our spicy black-bean burgers. Mmmmmmm.

Several months ago, the salsa started being produced by Sabra, the dip and hummus company. They touted it on the label, as if that would make it a big draw to the masses. We were out so I bought some ... and we hated it. Hated it! It was runny. The mango and peach flavors were muted, seemingly replaced by unfavorable spices. We ate as much as we could stand before throwing out a half-full container. (Should have taken it back to Costco, which has the best return policy in the business. Don't know why I didn't.)

I complained. Lots of others must have, too.

I was at Costco yesterday and noticed that the label no longer touted the Sabra connection. Instead, in capital letters, it screamed: ORIGINAL RECIPE. The same words were on the lid. The only reference to Sabra was in tiny letters under the nutrition label. I was thrilled -- and extra thrilled because Costco was discounting the item to reintroduce it to shoppers: 48 ounces for $3.99 ... are you kidding me? I put two in the cart before realizing we might not be able to eat that much mango salsa before the expiration date, so I put one back.

Well, I just had a few chips and salsa a few minutes ago and -- WOW! -- it is the ORIGINAL RECIPE and it is delicious.

I know what I'm having for lunch. And I'll be eating it with pride because of my little role in making it so!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Not-so-happy anniversary: Five years of permanent vacation

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 ...


Interviewing Jocks.

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!"

The Stress.

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.


The Travel.

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.

The Writing

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.

The Paycheck.

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.

The Prestige.

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.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sucky Sunday for Panthers fans, but our day was still better than A-Roid's

Only one of the four NFL teams that had a first-round bye and homefield advantage in this weekend's playoffs lost.

My team, the Panthers.

Their decisive loss to the 49ers capped a pretty lousy Sunday -- despite the fact that I spent most of it looking splendid in my Keyshawn Johnson #19 Panthers jersey circa 2006.

I had decided I wanted to watch the game with like-minded folks, so Roberta and I went to what I thought was a sports bar. We got there about 15 minutes before kickoff to find about 3 other people, none of whom seemed especially interested in the game.

That wasn't the vibe I wanted, so we left and went to an establishment I knew would be hopping. Getting there just before kickoff, the place was packed. So packed, there was not a single seat available. So we left to go to a place just a few minutes from where we live.

That place might have been even more packed than the previous establishment, so, with the game now well underway, we left and went to one just down the street.

That one had available seating in a room adjacent to the bar so we decided to stay. The place was fine. The burgers were fine. The beer was cold and cheap. The game was on. But most of the like-minded folks were at the bar a whole room away, so it didn't feel like much of an occasion at all.

And then the Panthers failed to score from the 1/2-yard line. And then they failed again. And then the 49ers took a halftime lead on a last-second TD. And then San Fran dominated the second half. And then Robbie and I went home halfway through the fourth quarter to watch the bitter end to what had been an extremely enjoyable season.

And then I took off my Panthers jersey until next season.


At least I, unlike Alex Rodriguez, will have a "next season" to enjoy.

Sunday's 60 Minutes expose on A-Roid was fascinating. Yes, the primary witness against him is a sleazebag with a history of fabricating the truth. But I had to laugh when A-Roid's lawyer intimated that his client was more believable than the sleazebag. Interesting, given that A-Roid spent years and years lying about juicing, only admitting the truth after being caught.

A-Roid is an admitted serial liar and a proven cheat. But now we're supposed to believe him. Funny!

Is it sad that a guy who could have been among the greatest players in baseball history thought cheating was the only way to do it? Nah. Pathetic is a much better word.

I doubt the courts will help A-Roid overturn his suspension for the entire 2014 season. And if there truly is any justice, he will never play another inning in the majors.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Big win for my girls, big jam for N.J. guv

Big win Thursday for my lady Eagles!

We had trouble hitting shots all game. On one possession, we had 7 of 'em, mostly from 5 feet and in, and the ball just wouldn't go in the basket.

Tied 20-20 with a few minutes left, our center hit 2 FTs. We later added a clinching layup -- finally, one went in! -- and our defense, the strength of our team, let us hang on to win.

With 3 victories in our last 4 games, we're now 4-5. I'm so proud of how hard these girls battle because we are not the most talented group around. Our next three games are against teams that beat us handily the first time around the league, so we will be heavy underdog. Still, it's comforting as a coach to know that even if we lose, we will never, ever quit.

If I were still a sportswriter, I would dismiss that as coachspeak. But now that I'm a coach, I see it for what it is. Some teams definitely succumb and give up. I love that mine doesn't!


And speaking of succumbing and giving up, how 'bout that Chris Christie, huh?

This has to be my favorite story in months. The New Jersey governor's top staff, including one of his best friends, orchestrated a series of huge traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge as retribution for the mayor of Ft. Lee, N.J., not endorsing him in the last election.

Of course, Christie, whom many consider the frontrunner for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, claimed to have no knowledge of the scheme -- even though one of his best friends was directly involved in it. He also said that, despite his reputation, he is not a bully.

And anybody who disagrees is in for a whuppin' after school!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Cutler's haul, Lovie's comeback & Metrodome memories

My wife and I were having dinner at a restaurant tonight when she saw Jay Cutler on the TV in the bar. "What did he do now?" she asked.

I squinted hard and saw exactly what he had done: signed a $126 million contract that includes $54 million guaranteed.

And so, one of my biggest NFL offseason questions -- What would the Bears do about this coach-killing, talented-but-never-quite-good-enough QB whose contract was about to expire? -- was answered before the playoffs even began. (Playoffs for the other teams, of course. Cutler failed to get the Bears there for the fourth time in his five Chicago seasons after going 0-for-3 with Denver.)

I suppose the Bears couldn't let such a talented player simply walk away. But now they have tethered themselves to this enigma for most of this decade.

I wouldn't have done it. I'd have franchised him and seen how he played in 2014. But what do I know ... except that he has one career playoff victory, that he never has thrown 30 TDs in a year, that he attempts at least a half-dozen stupid passes just about every game, that he goes through head coaches and offensive coordinators faster than some guys go through a buffet line, that he turns 31 in April and that he has become injury-prone?

Anyway, the Bears have their man for several more years. Just as they had him for the last five. And we saw how good that turned out to be.


And speaking of coaches that Cutler chewed up and spat out ...

Lovie Smith is back, this time with the Buccaneers.

If he's given some talent to work with, Lovie will do a good job. He no doubt learned a lot about what worked and what didn't. There are many examples of guys who struggled in their first job, got fired and came back to be outstanding coaches; Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll leap to mind. And Lovie had a lot more success in his first job than they did.

Lovie and I definitely were not close during the years I covered him. I disagreed with many of his decisions and I thought he needlessly made excuses for his players. They seemed to respect him, however, and he did win a lot more games than he lost -- not something many Bears coaches can say. He also got to a Super Bowl, another accomplishment that has eluded every Chicago coach not named Ditka, my friend.

Smith deserved a second chance as much as anybody.


The Metrodome -- that great pimple on the Minneapolis skyline -- has hosted its last sporting event and soon will be demolished.

It was a horrible place to watch baseball games and was as sterile a football environment as could be found anywhere, but I'll always have a lot of fond memories of the stadium in which I covered Twins and Vikings games from 1985-94 It was my first full-time sportswriting job, and the AP office was located right across the street from the Dome. I spent a lot of hours in that dump!

A few Metrodome memories that immediately pop into my head:

Game 6 of the 1987 World Series. When Kent Hrbek hit a grand slam to give the Twins a 10-5 lead over the Cardinals, I have never heard a more deafening din in a stadium.

Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. The late, great Kirby Puckett put the Twins on his back and carried them to an 11-inning win over the Braves.

Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. What a game! Jack Morris pitched 10 shutout innings and Lonnie Smith made one of the biggest baserunning blunders ever to cap off perhaps the greatest World Series ever.

Scott Erickson's no-hitter in 1994. It was the first no-no I ever covered. What made it especially amazing was that Erickson had allowed more hits than any other pitcher over the previous two seasons. That's right: The most hittable pitcher in baseball threw a no-hitter. I love that.

Herschel Walker's Vikings debut in 1989. When Walker returned the first Green Bay kickoff 51 yards, the Metrodome was up for grabs. Then, on his first play from scrimmage, Herschel went 47 yards -- the final 15 after his right shoe fell off during a defender's futile attempt to tackle him. By the time the day was done, Walker had rushed for 148 yards and the Vikings had a rare victory over the Packers. History shows that the Cowboys easily "won" the famed Herschel Walker trade, but that's not what the national pundits were saying after Walker's Vikings debut. More than a few were saying Vikings GM Mike Lynn had fleeced Jimmy Johnson.

Ditka rips Harbaugh in 1992. With the Bears leading 20-0, Jim Harbaugh audibled out of a running play and threw an interception that Todd Scott returned for a touchdown. Ditka went ballistic on the sideline. And after the Vikings came back to win 21-20, the coach was still fuming in the interview room: "I'll just say this: 'If it happens again, there will be changes made and they will be definite and they will be permanent.' I'm not gonna put 47 players' futures in the hands of one player who thinks he knows more than I do." How priceless is that?

The 1992 Super Bowl. I don't remember much about the game, in which the Bills got whipped again (this time by the Redskins). What I do remember is that I had just returned to work after missing nearly two weeks with a horrible case of the chickenpox, which I had caught from my son. My face still looked like the lunar surface and I still felt like hell. The game was the middle leg of an incredible seven-month run for the Metrodome that began with the '91 World Series and ended with the '92 Final Four.

Yep, even dumps can create some wonderful sports memories.