20 years ago today- a baseball game changed my life

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the most important moment of my professional career, which is weird because it took place in a baseball game in Cleveland, about 450 miles from where I lived at the time in Yardley, PA.

I didn’t even watch the game because I went to see a movie – The Anniversary Party – at a small theatre in Montgomery, NJ. (I was on an indy-movie kick at the time … it was good, not great).

I got home just in time to see the very end of the game, with Jolbert Cabrera’s hit scoring the winning run as the Indians defeated the Mariners.

Indians  15

Mariners 14

Further study of that moment revealed that the Indians had trailed in the game 12-0 and 14-2 and came back in an incredible fashion against a Mariners team that would later the MLB record with 116 regular season wins.

I was working for the Trenton Times, covering minor league hockey and local sports fora mid-sized circulation daily in a 2-paper city. We treated minor league hockey as a prominent beat, so I got to travel and I had a weekly column.

It was fun stuff, but at 27 years old, knowing that I was never going to be made full-time, and having a sense that the journalism industry was not in great shape. it felt like this was a time to be looking for other options.

The dream job scenario at that time would have been broadcasting baseball or basketball, but there were other things I was into. One would have been working for Sports Illustrated, which I devoured every week.

Another was working behind the scenes on Baseball Tonight, a job I knew about because at age 22, I interviewed to work behind the scenes on college basketball coverage.

I didn’t get that job, which is just as well because I wouldn’t have been a good fit. But when I drove home that night in 1997, I said to myself “If there’s a baseball job like this, it’s my kind of job.”

The way I watch baseball – I try to bring a personal touch to it.

And the personal touch I brought to Indians 15, Mariners 14 was the Charlie Brown touch.

I own about 150 Peanuts comic strip books. I don’t look at them that often anymore but I don’t intend to get rid of them. They’re an important part of my life. I like storytelling in just about any form you can imagine. Charles Schulz was a wonderful storyteller who knew how to communicate to both kids and adults.

From March 23 to April 3, 1981, Schulz told the story of a baseball game – one between a team run by Peppermint Patty and an unnamed opponent. Patty convinced Charlie Brown to come to the game and sell popcorn. Charlie Brown really wanted to pitch.

Patty’s team must have been quite the powerhouse and the opposing team must have been dreadful, because with 2 outs in the 9th inning, the score stood

Patty’s Team      50

Dreadful Opponent  0

Patty, feeling generous, agreed to let Charlie Brown pitch to the final batter while she relieved him as a popcorn seller. Chuck’s first pitch went past the catcher and hit Peppermint Patty. It knocked her out.

*Admittedly you must suspend belief here, because how would she not have been protected by the backstop?

When Patty awoke, her friend Marcie was there. Marcie informed Patty that Charlie Brown had allowed 51 runs and lost the game 51-50.

When I thought about

Indians 15, Mariners 14,

I didn’t think of winning pitcher John Rocker (ugh) or game-tying hit Omar Vizquel (ugh), I thought of

Dreadful Opponent 51, Patty’s Team 50.

And I thought I knew someone who might think that way as well.

Jayson Stark was in his second year as a senior writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on Baseball Tonight. When I was writing about hockey for the Trenton Times, there were 2 writers whose coverage I wanted to emulate – Peter Gammons for covering trades and team happenings and Jayson Stark for covering fun tidbits.

Jayson had columns on ESPN.com in which he would respond to the weird things that happened in games with statistical and historical spins. And he welcomed submissions from readers.

“Jayson…” I wrote the next day. “I have a tidbit that I thought you might like.”

Rumblings and Grumblings

Sure enough, Jayson was sharing my tidbit with the world a couple days later on ESPN.com (it’s still there!), giving me props for making the association, and making the joke that the Elias Sport Bureau confirmed it to be the greatest baseball comeback in a comic strip.

In reading Jayson’s column, I was struck by how cool it was to get mentioned and that Jayson wrote a column that mentioned his readers by name.

One of my colleagues at The Times, David Porter had worked with Jayson at The Philadelphia Inquirer and when I asked if Jayson was a good guy, David said that he was.

I guess I was feeling bold because I wrote Jayson another note, first to thank him for the mention in his column and secondly to ask for something really, really small.

I knew that if I applied to ESPN through the human resources department, I’d be challenged to get my resume in the hands of the people who actually did the hiring for ESPN’s Research department.

So I asked Jayson – who does the hiring for people who want to work on Baseball Tonight?

I had no expectations that Jayson would write back. I learned later that he always wrote back.

In this case he did and he did so quickly. It was a short and simple e-mail. He gave me the name and e-mail address for the show’s producer, Judson Burch.

I wrote Judson Burch. Judson said he didn’t handle hiring people who wanted to be researchers, but he gave me another name, Craig Wachs.

I was now 2-for-2 in unlikely e-mail responses from strangers. So let’s try for 3-for-3.

Feeling bold, I prepped a resume and a cover letter for Craig. Craig later told me that he was taken by the boldness of my letter. I took a stronger approach on that one than most of the cover letters I wrote, basically saying that I wasn’t stumpable on any baseball question past or present.

A few months later Craig reached out – in fact, it was at a rather inopportune time. I did my preliminary ESPN job screening and quiz sitting outside a luxury suite while getting ready to cover a minor league hockey game.

I did well enough on that to earn an invite to Bristol, CT for another ESPN interview.

This time, Craig took me into a conference room, in which we sat for multiple hours. The executive producer of ESPN’s game broadcasts came in for a few minutes, presumably to make sure I wasn’t some nut off the street. But for most of my time I was grilled by Craig.

Name the hitters with 500 home runs. The pitchers with 3,000 strikeouts.

All things easily findable now, but in 2002, instant recall was of supreme importance.

I was ready for every question. As promised, they weren’t gonna stump me.

Then came a curveball. I guess Craig wanted to see how I could handle a question requiring some analytical thought:

“Make a case for one of the following people for the Hall of Fame: Steve Garvey, Bill Buckner, or Keith Hernandez.”

That question was basically a gift from the baseball gods.

My father’s favorite Met is Keith Hernandez and Keith’s excellence was preached to me on almost every Mets game we watched.

I walked through an answer related the combination of his strong offensive numbers, his memorable postseason hits (a big one in Game 7 of two World Series’), and his amazing way of playing defense (he took the bunt away as an option when teams actually bunted).

My answers sufficed and were good enough to get them to bump their initial offer from $10 per hour to $12 per hour, though it was a 6-month temp job with no guarantees beyond that. I was making considerably more at The Times but after a lot of thought and some coaxing from family, I made the move.

In my first two weeks at ESPN, I remember contributing to a SportsCenter Top 10 about notable athletic accomplishments by older people.

I suggested we include 75-year-old Luke Appling’s home run against Warren Spahn in an oldtimer’s game. I think that got my colleagues to realize that I was no slouch when it came to baseball history.

Though neither were my colleagues. One of them was lamenting the death of the Queen Mum, who was 101 years old when she died.

Another of my colleagues exclaimed “Wow, she was almost as old as the American League!”

And I remember when that happened, thinking “My colleagues … they think just like I do.”

It wasn’t Charlie Brown and 51-50. But it was very much in the same crazy way of thinking about sports.

These were my people – and it was good to be among them.

I turned that Charlie Brown tidbit into nearly 16 years and a lot of great memories at ESPN, then moved on (by choice) to work at Sports Info Solutions for the last three-plus years. That’s going well too.

Two last things I like to say about my story.

1) Every year, you will come into moments that can dramatically change the course of your life. You just have to keep your eyes open and be ready for them when they come along.

2) When in doubt, always reach out.

If you are an aspiring baseball media person or baseball stat person looking for help and you contact me, I will do my 100% best to write back. I remember what it was like to be in your position and I’m happy to try to assist in turning the course of your life too.

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