Thursday, January 7, 2016

My Hall of Fame Experiences

Meeting the likes of Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza was a thrill for
someone who grew up watching them as a youngster in the 1990s.
I have written here before on the numerous great experiences I’ve been able to have thanks to the game of baseball. Whether as a player, coach, fan, or member of the media, the game has continually given back to me over the years.
With Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza being elected into the baseball Hall of Fame yesterday, it brought back a couple more memories.
In my time as a freelance sports writer with the Associated Press’ bureau in Washington, D.C., I was able to cover a number of Nationals, Redskins and Wizards games. A few experiences at those games stand out. The first took place on August 25, 2005 (my brother’s birthday), during the Nationals’ first season in Washington after moving from Montreal.
A little background on what my role was while covering these games. The AP has two reporters at each game, one a staff writer, and the other a freelancer. As the freelancer, my responsibility during the games was to keep a scorebook, feed interesting notes and stats to the writer for them to potentially add to their game story, and at times write a sidebar story if something of note occurred during the game. After the game, we split up interview responsibilities, generally with the staff writer heading to the home clubhouse and the freelancer to the visitor clubhouse. At RFK Stadium, where the Nationals originally played before Nationals Park opened, this required hustling down the concourse ramp, dodging drunk fans and getting to the clubhouse prior to them opening up to the media. (Thankfully, Nationals Park has an elevator to take media downstairs.)
Like many kids who grew up playing ball in the 90s, I idolized Griffey, who everyone knew and still knows as Junior. I loved how he played the game with the Willie Mays smile on his face, how everything seemed so effortless to him, whether it was his perfect swing or gliding to rob someone of extra bases in the outfield.
Anyway, on this particular date in 2005, Griffey had hit his 30th home run of the season as a member of the Reds, the first time he had done so since the 2000 season after battling injuries for a number of years. As the media contingent walked into the clubhouse, he was heading in to get treatment from their trainer, and a light-hearted exchange occurred where he chided a Cincinnati beat writer who had posed the question in a preseason column if he would ever eclipse 30 homers again.
Once he returned from getting treatment, he took questions from the media. Now keep in mind that I was still relatively young and very nervous about asking one of my childhood heroes a question in an interview session that was being broadcast on television. I was hoping, praying, that one of the other reporters would present the question I was tasked by the AP’s staff writer to ask, so I wouldn’t have to. They didn’t. So after the session wrapped and the reporters moved on, I stayed and at this point in a sweat, asked Junior if I could grab him for one last question.
I remember it well, Griffey smiled and said, ‘Of course’, and then I asked him my question (no, I can’t remember what it was) as well as a couple follow-up questions to get the quote I was looking for. Throughout my maybe two-minute exchange with him, I wanted very badly to turn my notepad around and ask if he’d sign it for me. But I knew it was a big no-no and ethically against everything I had been taught in journalism classes in school and had learned in my time as a reporter, so I didn’t. Regardless, what a great experience and story.
That same year, as is the case whenever a team from a big market like New York is in town, I was asked to get to a game a couple hours early to sit in on the pregame manager’s presser, this time with Mets manager Willie Randolph (who was an All-Star in his own right in the 1970s and 80s with the Yankees). I arrived about 30 minutes before the interview was supposed to begin, took a seat on the couch in the Mets’ locker room and began watching ESPN on the TV. A few minutes later, someone sat down next to me and began tying his shoes. I was nervous that I wasn’t supposed to be sitting there and was about to get kicked off the couch, so tried my best not to make eye contact.
Then the guy says, “You have a team?” as highlights from the previous night’s NBA games are broadcast on SportsCenter. I look over and it’s Tom Glavine, who was then 39 years old and wrapping up a career that led to an induction in the Hall of Fame in 2014. We spoke for a few minutes and then he said he had to go, popped up and I assume with shorts and sneakers on went out to get in some running on the field on one of his off days. Here was a guy who won over 300 games, two Cy Young Awards, and I couldn’t believe two things: how he wasn’t much bigger than me, and how nice of a dude he was.
After that game, I was in a group interview session with Piazza, who was then 36 and in the midst of his final All-Star season with the Mets. I remember two things from that experience. First, how approachable and media-friendly the guy was. Secondly, how bad a body he had for a professional athlete. I was used to being in NFL, NBA and MLB locker rooms where most of the guys are muscle-bound and chiseled. Piazza looked like the old hairy Italian guy with the big belly you'd see on the beach. Except that old hairy Italian guy with the belly on the beach probably didn’t hit 427 home runs and make 12 All-Star teams.
Those experiences with Griffey, Glavine and Piazza taught me two things about baseball players that resonates today. First, that for the most part, even the best of the best are great guys, and not the arrogant pricks that they can sometimes be portrayed as. And second, at least in the case of Glavine and Piazza, that you don’t necessarily need to be built like Bryce Harper and be able to run like Dee Gordon to succeed in this game.
For someone who was once a kid enamoured with these guys and then a big kid who got to meet them, those were just a couple cool experiences out of many I have had while involved in the game.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Life With Rocky, and His Latest Message

Balboa-Drago II at Kappa Sigma's Hairy Buffalo
Party in 2000 didn't live up to the original. 
The first one, probably the best of the series, was released three years before I was born. Then came the second, third and fourth installments, each three years apart, culminating with everyone’s favorite American underdog pulling off the impossible in the most hostile of Cold War-era environments … the Soviet Union.  
Even if the fifth chapter of the Rocky saga kinda bombed, and the sixth was a bit of a stretch when the AARP version of the Italian Stallion went the distance with the current Heavyweight champ, I remained hooked. Rocky Balboa may have been a fictional creation of Sylvester Stallone, but he was very much one of my heroes.
I’m not sure if I have made it through a workout or a run without playing at least one song from the numerous Rocky soundtracks, usually ‘Eye of the Tiger’, ‘Go For It’ or ‘Training Montage’. I’ve probably shadowboxed 1,000 rounds in my lifetime while watching the fight scenes against Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago. When I was in my mid- and late-20s, the first thing I would show someone in my bedroom was a foot-tall Rocky figurine my buddy Brian got me that would shout famous lines and throw punches when you pushed a button at his feet. I'm pretty sure it scared off a couple potential girlfriends.
Heck, I even went as Rocky for a Halloween party in college. A handful of beers later, I was throwing featherweight blows with my buddy, Forrest, who had gone as Drago, as the ‘crowd’ at the party formed a makeshift ring around us.
Some of my favorite memories growing up were ‘Rock-a-thon’s’ with my brother and Brian. Our mothers just shook their heads, but kept the soda and popcorn coming as we sat, screamed, laughed and created as much havoc as possible through nearly 10 hours of Rocky. We haven’t gotten together for one since the sixth version, ‘Rocky Balboa’, hit theatres in 2006, but you’d better believe one day we will with our kids at our side.
Rocky is the ‘Star Wars’ of sports movies. Most great films can grab the hearts of one or maybe two generations, and then fade. When ‘Creed’, which can be looked at as either the seventh installment or a spin off of the series, hit theatres last month, it did so to packed theatres and a fourth generation of fans. What Sly created in 1976, remains as strong as ever 40 years later.
Mickey, Apollo, Adrian, Paulie - four character staples in the series - have passed away. Balboa looks more Grandpa than Heavyweight Champ now. The popularity of boxing in today’s sports world has waned. All solid reasons for the Rocky dynasty to stay retired.
But the introduction of Apollo’s son in ‘Creed’ has breathed life into Rocky, figuratively when it comes to proving the brand can still generate a buzz and pack theatres, but also literally in the case of Balboa the character, who was ready to give in to cancer before the younger Creed pushed him to fight, much like Mickey had done in Rocky I and II, like Apollo did after Rocky lost to Mr. T’s character in Rocky III, and how Adrian had when she showed up during his training in Rocky IV.
There’s an underlying message here that hasn’t been mentioned much throughout all the hoopla, interviews and articles I’ve read about ‘Creed’. As amazing as Rocky’s story of perseverance has been, as lasting the images are of his runs up the steps in Philadelphia and through the snow-covered mountains in the then-Soviet Union, and as motivating as the training montages and his fights with Creed, Lang, Drago and Mason Dixon were, the underdog of all underdogs continues to give when we thought he had nothing more to give.
But he couldn’t do it alone. He needed a great support group to gain that additional strength to topple bigger, stronger, more talented foes. As a coach, it will serve as another great analogy to use when trying to motivate a player or team. As special as he was, there’s no chance Rocky Balboa becomes an icon without the positive energy, support and motivation he gained from those around him.
He probably would have been just another Tommy Gunn. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
I’m not sure if ‘Creed’ marks the end of the Rocky saga. But if it does, it leaves us with an outstanding message for anyone looking to overcome an obstacle in life. Don't go at it alone. Lean on those around you to provide that additional boost while you reach for the stars.
Thank you, Sly, for giving us as real a fictional character as has ever been dreamed up. Anyone who has grown up with Rocky as a part of our lives is surely a better person for it.