Calling the Pen: When 70 is more than just a number - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Baseball Essays

Calling the Pen: When 70 is more than just a number

When I think of 70, I think about the 1970 World Series that the Orioles won in five games over the Cincinnati Reds. Five games in which third baseman Brooks Robinson played such remarkable defense that it caused hitters such as Johnny Bench to marvel at his wizardry and to say after Brooks was the unanimous choice for World Series MVP and a new sports car: “If he wanted a car that badly, we’d have given him one.” Reds manager Sparky Anderson was creative in explaining Robinson’s dominance: “I’m beginning to see Brooks in my sleep. If I dropped a paper plate, he’d pick it up on one hop and throw me out at first.”

I was working at the Baltimore News American at that time, trying to learn that there’s no cheering in the press box even though I was bursting with pride. It was near the beginning of a journey that kept me in journalism for 46 years, most of them spent in sports. It’s hard to explain the impact sports have had on my life, except to say that my life wouldn’t be the same without them. And now, as I approach a new season at age 70, it’s time for reflection.

***
In 1969, the year the Orioles played in their first of three consecutive World Series, I started to work as a copy boy in the sports department. I was there because of three people — my mom, Royal Parker and John Steadman. My mom, who also was a baseball fan, worked at a bank on Liberty Road. One of her customers was Royal Parker, a station announcer for WBAL. I knew then I wanted to do something with sports and thought it might be in broadcasting. My mom told Parker about my aspirations, and he invited me to visit the television and radio studios and to meet Vince Bagli.

When I arrived at 7 on a summer evening, Bagli had left for dinner after doing the 6 o’clock broadcast. Parker took me upstairs to one of the radio studios, where News American sports editor John Steadman was taping a segment that would run at 7:15 the next morning. Steadman had just lost his summer intern, and he soon was asking if I had a job lined up for the fall when I started classes at the Community College of Baltimore. He liked that that I addressed him as sir, although he insisted on “just John.”

He always called me John, too, although everyone else called me Jack. Soon I was taking classes in the morning and working in the sports department in the afternoons and on Saturdays. I was hooked from the moment I walked in the door, the bylines coming to life. I volunteered to cover games on my own time and dime, because the experience was worth it. In 1972, Steadman offered me a full-time writing position, covering high schools. My mom, who had bought me a typewriter, started pasting my stories in a scrapbook.

***
In 1983, the year the Orioles won their last World Series, I left The News American to work at the Philadelphia Daily News as a sports copy editor. A lot had changed at The News American. Steadman was no longer running sports, although he was still writing his column. The company that owned the paper, Hearst, had brought in an executive sports editor, Russ Brown, whom I despised at first.

Hearst was putting money into The News American by hiring talented journalists that it thought might pull readers and, especially, advertisers away from The Sun. It didn’t work, but it did make us better for a while. Jack McCallum, who would go on to Sports Illustrated, covered the Colts. Peter Pascarelli, who moved to the Philadelphia Inqurier and ESPN, covered the Orioles. Randy Youngman, who went to the Orange County Register, covered Maryland, as did Susan Fornoff, whose outstanding career was just getting started. Youngman’s hire affected me directly. I had been covering the Terps in football and basketball and went back to covering high schools. It made for an awkward relationship until the Terps’ Buck Williams was undercut by Duke’s Kenny Dennard going for a rebound in the ACC Tournament, and those at courtside didn’t have a good view of a foul that wasn’t called. I told Youngman what we had seen on the telecast, and our relationship changed. So did my position shortly afterward.

I requested a move to the sports copy desk, where I learned a new skill. Brown was the one who approved the move and later asked me to join him when he moved to the news side of the paper. I did, not realizing its importance then. When it became evident that Hearst was no longer putting money into the paper — it would fold in 1986 — I started looking elsewhere. I got the job in Philly in part because I had worked in sports and news. I had been given an Orioles T-shirt when I left The News American, which I sometimes wore for my copy editing shifts in Philadelphia. The looks I got from those in the composing room when the Orioles played the Phillies in the World Series let me know how seriously Philly fans take their sports.

***
In 1985, a season in which the Orioles would finish fourth in American League East with an 83-78 record, I was offered the job of Evening Sun sports editor. I accepted, but it wasn’t a slam dunk. I loved working in Philly, where we had an exceptional writing staff in a passionate sports town. My co-workers on the desk were exceptional, too, but this was a chance to run my own department, in my hometown. I had much to learn and a wonderful staff to lean on when I came back to Baltimore.

At that time, the Evening Sun and Sun had separate staffs and competed against each other. The Washington Post also competed on the Orioles’ beat because D.C. didn’t have a baseball team. Evening Sun editor Jack Lemmon was our Lou Grant, and he even looked like Ed Asner. I discovered how old-school Lemmon was when I tried to hire Ken Rosenthal to cover the Orioles. Lemmon, Rosenthal and I went to dinner in Little Italy. I thought Jack would ask Ken a lot of questions to get a sense of his work ethic and maturity, but Jack just kept talking about the St. Louis Cardinals, his favorite team. Finally, when Jack and I were alone, I asked him what he thought of Rosenthal. “He’s too young,” he said. Ken was 24 and looked even younger. After some lobbying, he got the job and competed against Richard Justice (Post) and Tim Kurkjian (Sun), all three of whom have had Hall of Fame baseball careers.

***

In 1991, when the Orioles played their final game at Memorial Stadium on October 6th, Sun managing editor Marty Kaiser told me the paper was going to merge its staffs and asked me to be the sports editor. I was incredibly thankful, but it was even more humbling. When I was at The News American and began my search to work for another paper, my first calls went to The Sun and Evening Sun. Neither was interested.

While I was in Philly, I became night sports editor, and spent some time in news. The sports section was one of the best in the country, and it lifted my reputation by association. I realized how fortunate I had been each step of the way, even those I didn’t want to take. Now I would be overseeing coverage of every sport, including the building of Camden Yards. Mark Hyman was our lead reporter for that project and was as thorough as Janet Marie Smith, the architect whose design would set the standard for new ballparks. But the team’s owner, Eli Jacobs, didn’t think he was going to get enough credit in a special section we were working on and wanted Mark removed from the beat. The publisher let Jacobs know that there wouldn’t be an assignment change, and Mark did his work without a hint that there had been an issue. It was a behind-the-scenes story that remained there during a time when reporters were asked to report a story, not be the story.

***

In 1995 … well, everyone knows what the baseball story was. On September 6th, Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played. We had reporters, photographers and editors at the park to record history when Ripken tied the record and set it. Everyone was on his or her game, our staff rising to the occasion as it did so many times — the adrenaline of sports reflected in our work. I was on the field before the final game at Memorial Stadium and in the press box for the first game at Camden Yards. But I didn’t feel anything like I felt on the two nights that Ripken and Baltimore brought the national pastime one of its finest moments. On the night that Ripken set the record, as I saw the heavyweights of sportswriting in the press box, I realized how blessed I was to be in this position. It wasn’t something I felt I deserved but more of a gift, one that started with my mom.

***
In 2015, when the Orioles went 81-81, my record was nearly finished. The Sun was offering a buyout, and it made sense for me economically. My last day was the day before Christmas Eve, and I left quietly, taking with me mostly memories. There were too many to process on the drive home.

The week between Christmas and New Year felt like I was on vacation. It wasn’t until January 2nd that retirement started to become a reality. I wasn’t sure what I would do with my time, but there was another divine plan. It would involve becoming friends with my next-door neighbor’s father, who had terminal cancer, volunteering for an organization called Athletes Serving Athletes, spending more time with family, and writing and editing for BaltimoreBaseball.com. There is always baseball, and a new season. Bring on 70.

The motto for Athletes Serving Athletes is Together We Finish. It recognizes the value, and importance, of teamwork. I’d like to think that’s what we had in sports. I’d also like to thank all those who helped me along the way and helped me find my way.

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