Joe Lombardi and the Quest for Peace

We all have people in our lives who set us on a righteous path.

For me, as a journalist, that person was Joe Lombardi.

Way back in the early months of 1990, I wrote a report card of the Mahopac High boys’ basketball team for our school newspaper, The Chieftain. After it ran, I was called into the office of Gerry Keevins, the athletic director. Thus began my first (of many) writing-related butt kickings.

Hurt and bloodied, I wrote a letter to Joe, who was 23-years old and the sports editor of our local weekly, The Patent Trader. Joe responded with a polite-yet-pointed note, explaining why it’s wrong—at any level—to give grades to high school athletes. He was, of course, 100 percent correct.

What ensued, I’m thrilled to say, was a lengthy friendship that has lasted through today. I interned for Joe at the Trader, and still often seek his counsel and advice. He was one of the first to call me “Pearl,” and when I was young and poor took me to a Jewish deli in Mt. Kisco for pickles and whitefish on rye. We’re stubborn political opposites who have traveled different paths (Joe spent much time as an editor and TV personality), but I’ll always be loyal to the man. Without his help and guidance, I’m pumping gas (not that anything’s wrong with pumping gas). He took a shot on me when I was nothing but a snot-nosed high schooler with a puny vocabulary and no prom date.

Anyhow, Joe wrote the following piece for today’s North County News. As always, he’s The Man …

Accomplished author Pearlman returns

I’m working on my first book right now.
It’s a new thing for me — and something I’ve always wanted to do.
But I didn’t know much about the whole process going in. I mean, there’s a lot more to do than just sitting down and putting words together.

So I knew I needed to get some advice. And I knew just where to go.
I decided to call upon someone who has written four books, including two New York Times bestsellers, and who was a nationally acclaimed writer for Sports Illustrated.

It just so happens he’s also the first intern I ever hired — way back in the days when I was a 23-year-old working as sports editor of three weekly newspapers in Westchester, Putnam and Fairfield.

I got a letter from this Mahopac High School senior named Jeff Pearlman.
It seems he wrote an article for his school paper, The Chieftain, in which he assigned letter grades for the performances of members of the Indians’ varsity basketball team.

“I asked you what you thought, and you didn’t agree with me,” Pearlman said. “You said, ‘You don’t do report cards for high school players.’ ”

The conversation got us talking — which led to a summer internship before Pearlman headed off to the University of Delaware.

“I really learned what journalism is about,” he said. “I think I learned how to interview. I learned how to report. I remember sitting at the computer with you getting advice. I don’t do anything I’ve done without that internship. That led me on the path. It was everything.”

Hearing him say that made we wonder what exactly it was I taught him since I wasn’t much older than he was at the time.

“It’s really crazy,” he said. “You running a sports section at that age. You pulled it off well. For me, it was great because you were young. It wasn’t like having a heavy-handed 40 year old telling me what to do.”

Now though, the roles are reversed, and I’m the one seeking advice and input.
It’s especially timely now, too. Pearlman’s fourth book, “The Rocket that Fell to Earth,” has just been released. The book focuses on the rise and ultimate fall of seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens. In doing research for the book, he conducted more than 400 interviews, though Clemens, who refused to cooperate with Pearlman, was not among them.
Make no mistake; it’s not a tell-all steroid exposé.

“There had never been a definitive biography on him,” Pearlman said. “The steroid part was the least significant part for me.”

Among the aspects of Clemens’ life Pearlman did find interesting:
• Clemens’ sister-in-law, who was murdered by drug dealers, helped raise him.
• Though he’s known for his Texas roots, Clemens grew up outside Dayton, Ohio, where he was overweight and mediocre at best as a baseball player.

• Clemens had a 10-year affair with Mindy McCready, a country singer.
“I thought people didn’t want to read another ‘Game of Shadows,’ ” Pearlman said.
On June 20 at 2 p.m. at the Mahopac Library, Pearlman will be speaking about the book.
“The Mahopac Library is a special place for me,” Pearlman said.

When he was growing up, the librarian there, knowing his love of sports writing, would reserve any new sports book that came in for him. It’s also the place where he voraciously devoured scores of issues of the magazine he later went on to write for, Sports Illustrated, where he wrote the controversial interview with former Atlanta Braves wild child John Rocker.
“I feel a sense of loyalty to that library,” Pearlman said.