My first game, my worst summer

I was thinking this morning about the first time I covered a Major League baseball game. The year was 1992, and I was a summer intern at the Champaign Urbana News-Gazette. It was an absolutely brutal time in my life. In no particular order of events/thoughts: 1. I was all alone in a college town, making $5 an hour and driving a car without working power steering; My television was black and white, and the only two programs I remember getting were The 700 Club and Star Trek; I’m pretty sure the guy living upstairs was beating his girlfriend; I was so bored I tried picking up cigarette smoking (didn’t take); I was 20, sans fake ID; I broke my ankle playing basketball—it healed, I returned and in my first game back severely sprained my other ankle; my editor hated me (with good reason, no doubt); the only other intern was, like 27, and from the area (ie: he had no use for me).

Brutal, brutal, brutal summer that I would wish on no kid …

And yet.

There was one great moment. One shining moment. My horrible summer coincided with the rise of a Seattle Mariners lefthander named Dave Fleming. Dave would go on to win 17 games that year, and he also happened to be from, of all places, my hometown of Mahopac, N.Y. Hence, one day I called Joe Lombardi, sports editor of the ol’ Patent Trader (my hometown weekly) and asked if I could snag a press credential from Comiskey Park when the Mariners came to town. “I’ll write a piece on Dave,” I told him.

Joe agreed.

It was, with no exaggeration, like an escape from Alcatraz. I loathed Champaign, with its long stretches of corn fields and its famed Mexican chain restaurant (Burritos as big as your head!) and its devotion to lame college athletes (Jeff George, David Williams, etc). Much of this was mere projection—I was unhappy, therefore I was geographically unhappy. But to jump ship, even for a day, made my summer. Plus, I’d never before gone to a Big League game as a member of the press. Never.

Here’s what I remember:

1. I was nervous as all hell.

2. I was really, really, really nervous.

3. I entered the Mariners locker room and, for a long time, sorta hid in the corner. When I saw Dave walk by, I introduced myself, explained where I was from and requested some time. He said I should meet him in the dugout in 10 minutes. The dugout! Really! Holy shit!

4. While waiting for Dave, I spoke with Dave Valle, Seattle’s catcher. I think he could tell I was crapping in my pants, because he was sympathetic and accommodating. That, or he was simply a nice guy.

5. When Dave came out, well, I was floating. Here I was, at the Comiskey Park, flags blowing in the wind, sound of balls popping mitt. My dream had been to become a real sportswriter, and now it was happening. At least it felt as if it was happening.

6. I don’t recall much of the interview. Dave was polite and nice, and spoke warmly of his season with an absolutely dreadful Mariners team.

7. I sat in the press box for much of the game, watching real writers cover real action. Wow.

•••

Now, two decades removed, I’m certainly more jaded. And seasoned. The nerves aren’t what they were. Neither is the sense of wonder. But I still often pinch myself, getting to write for a living. I still consider myself the luckiest guy on the planet.

And, truth be told, that summer in Champaign was exactly what I needed. I was a bratty 20-year old who thought he was God’s gift to the pen. I didn’t know how to report, or write cohesively, or relate with my elders. In my time there, I was ripped by the managing editor for my poor dress habits (Dear God, kid, wear socks) and the sports editor for sloppiness and an unwillingness to listen (this guy, who I don’t even remember, clearly hasn’t forgotten). I even left a week before the internship officially ended; called my dad and said, “I’m getting the hell out of here.” The lack of dedication was, and is, galling.

Somewhere in my house, in an envelope, in a closet, I have the letter the sports editor sent me that following fall. She told me I had talent, and promise, but that—in short—I needed to grow up.

I’ve never forgotten that summer; that visit with Dave Fleming; that letter.

Never.

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