The Washington Times stopped sending me to cover postseason baseball after 1997 for several reasons. The business was changing, and not for the better. Deadlines were getting worse, as newspaper distribution grew wider and wider in geography.
Many years ago, a hometown paper might have a 5-10 mile radius for delivery to most of its customers. Now, given not just the suburban growth but even to rural areas – and how willing people are to travel great distances from the city to live in affordable, comfortable housing – that radius was more like 90 miles now. We had customers to deliver the paper to in places like Richmond, Va., and Charles Town, W. Va.
Because of those limitations for us, the smaller paper in town, we didn’t have the resources on the desk and production to handle two late stories – a game story by our baseball writer and a column by me, sometimes coming in after midnight – for postseason baseball coverage. So they decided to just send our baseball writer to give the basics of coverage for our readers. Also, with about 10 minutes to file after the game ended, there would not be much difference between the game coverage and any column. So I was on hiatus from covering postseason baseball.
That changed in 2003, as the reality of baseball returning to Washington grew closer. It was important for me to be around the postseason atmosphere, where you run into many insiders in the baseball industry and can pick up valuable information about the story that I had been chasing since 1994 – a baseball team in Washington.
I came back to postseason baseball in 2003, and I came back with a bang.
I covered the memorable 2003 American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. I was in the Fenway Park press box for game three on October 11, 2003, with the series tied at 1-1, when all hell broke loose.
It was a matchup between former Red Sox pitching great Roger Clemens and the ace who replaced him, Pedro Martinez. The atmosphere was tense. Karim Garcia was hit in the back by a pitch from Martinez. The Yankee dugout started yelling at Martinez. Then Manny Ramirez was buzzed by a Clemens fastball and charged the mound. Both dugouts emptied, and it was an all-out brawl. But right in front of us, we saw 72-year-old Don Zimmer running toward Martinez with his arms swinging. He was going to fight him! Martinez grabbed him on the back of the head and pulled him down to the ground, and it felt like something pretty bad was about to happen. After about 15 minutes, order seemingly was restored.
A few innings later, though, I was sitting near Sports Illustrated Tom Verducci when he yelled, “There’s a fight in the bullpen!” We looked up and saw Yankees relief pitcher Jeff Nelson fighting with a Fenway Park groundskeeper.
Since this was an afternoon game, there was no shortage of column material for me and plenty of time to write it.
Game four the next day was rained out, which led to dueling press conferences between the Red Sox and Yankees brass, each blaming the other for what happened. Remember, this was the height of the “Evil Empire” designation that Boston owner Larry Lucchino gave the Yankees.
I was in the Yankee Stadium press box for game seven, when Grady Little left a tiring Pedro Martinez in the game in the eighth inning, resulting in the Yankees scoring three runs to tie the game at 5-5. And yes, I was there Aaron Boone sent Tim Wakefield’s first pitch deep into the Bronx night for the game-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th.
Right next to the press box at Yankee Stadium was George Steinbrenner’s celebrity box. And the only thing separating the two was a piece of plexiglass. I was sitting front row right next to the plexiglass. Right on the other side, just a few feet away, sat Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, who, like many Yankees fans that night, hugged each other in joy after Boone blasted his home run.
The Yankees would go on to lose a forgettable six-game World Series to the upstart Florida Marlins. I remember the Marlins colorful manager, Jack McKeon, telling a story about how he went to church every morning, and before he walked in, he would put the cigar he was smoking in a ledge outside the church. Then, when he came out after services, take the cigar back out and light it up again. My father would do the same thing.
I was there again in 2004 when the Yankees were up 3-0 in the League Championship Series – winning game three by a score of 19-8 – when, down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth with Mariano Rivera on the mound, wound up winning the game when pinch runner Dave Roberts stole second and scored on a single by Bill Mueller to tie the game. Boston would win on a two-run home run by David Ortiz in the 12thinning, and remarkably, win the next three as well to take the series. They would face the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.
Boston would sweep St. Louis, but what I remember from this was several columns I came up with. Here is some more inside baseball – because of our deadline limitations, I had to write columns for the next day that stood up no matter what the result of the game was, a feature-style column. Sometimes that is easy, when you simply write about the next day’s starting pitchers. But this was my column – a source of pride – and I wanted to come up with something different, something unique. Sometimes, I nailed it.
The Red Sox-Cardinals series featured a showdown between two former partners – Red Sox owner Larry Lucchino and St. Louis owner Bill DeWitt. They were partners to buy the Baltimore Orioles in 1993 for $140 million from Eli Jacobs, when the deal fell apart because Jacobs went into bankruptcy. Lucchino and DeWitt agreed to become partners with Peter Angelos when he made his successful $173 million bid for the franchise in bankruptcy court, but both found out there is nothing more limited than being a limited partner with Peter Angelos. Lucchino dropped out quickly after the sale, and DeWitt, after declaring upon the sale of the team that he would be in charge of baseball operations, bowed out a year later.
Now both of them would face each other in the World Series – both had recovered well and were now enjoying success that Angelos never had in baseball.
The column for someone from Washington, and particularly Baltimore, to write was about the two owners. Turns out I was the only one who noticed that.
Getting Lucchino was easy. I had a relationship with him ever since I did the book, “Home of the Game – the story of Camden Yards.” I got him on the phone and interviewed him about his history with DeWitt and how they both wound up there now in the World Series.
But DeWitt was harder. I had met him before, but didn’t know him well. I had no way to get in touch with him, so that meant I had to go through the Cardinals public relations department. Like most major league baseball PR departments, they were useless, so I only had a one-sided column.
Walking through a packed Fenway Park just minutes before game time – surrounded by a sea of people – I turn around suddenly and bump into – guess who – Bill DeWitt! I spent a few minutes interviewing him and had my column – a good angle that no one else had.
The other column I liked from that series was something that tied into the pain of Red Sox fans, particularly the 1986 World Series pain, the game six loss to the New York Mets on the ground ball that went through Bill Buckner’s legs. In a small item in the Boston Globe – about an inch – was a note about a baseball clinic being held in town that featured a number of former major league ballplayers.
One of the players? Mookie Wilson.
Mookie Wilson was going to be in Boston during the World Series – the man whose dribbler of a ground ball changed the history of this franchise. That was too good to pass up, so I went to the clinic and interviewed Wilson. I always thought it was curious that Boston fans never vilified Wilson for hitting the ground ball. They made Buckner the villain, though it was likely that Wilson would have beat out the ground ball anyway. So I had a column about Mookie Wilson in Boston while the Red Sox were trying exorcise the curse of that ground ball.