THE DARK DAY FILES: War Stories
The idea for this installment of “The Dark Day Files,” admittedly, came partially from the world of professional wrestling. Often, when a wrestler of considerable renown isn’t contracted to a particular company, he or she will do what’s known as a “shoot interview” and provide some background on his or her experiences, as well as tell stories and shed some light on stuff fans and followers may not be aware of.
It first occurred to me Sunday that I had enough material to start telling stories. I was working from The Daily Racing Form’s newest temporary bureau, a Starbucks in Santa Monica, ahead of an attempt at the Los Angeles trivia championships, where the winning team splits $1,000 (spoiler alert: we didn’t win, but we led at the halfway point and finished a respectable 11th of 32 finalists). In and of itself, this coffee shop just off the beach could provide the setting for the 2017 answer to Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” given the eclectic mix of people coming and going (the great Hunter S. Thompson would have had a field day psychoanalyzing some of these people!).
However, my epiphany came when an older woman asked if she could sit down at my table so as to plug her laptop in to charge. I obliged, and we started talking. She asked what company I worked for, I answered honestly…and it turned out that this woman, who I had never met or heard of before, had freelanced for my current employer many years prior.
I was floored. What are the odds of such a chance encounter happening in a random coffee shop 3,000 miles away from the company’s headquarters? Seriously, if there’s a mathematician out there that has nothing better to do, I’d love for someone to try to calculate it.
Ultimately, I realized that I’ve been lucky enough to do way more cool stuff that can be claimed as “work” than any person should be allowed to experience. Of course, spending multiple summers at Saratoga is near the top of that list, but I was on-site at the 2010 Winter Olympics in what doubled as my first taste of post-college employment. I did a radio broadcast of an NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament game at the Carrier Dome, one of the best venues for the sport anywhere in the world. I shared a press box with fellow Ithaca College alum Karl Ravech during regional play of the 2010 Little League World Series. I’ve gotten to meet world-renowned members of the sports world like Warren Moon and Jim Boeheim, as well as a lot of athletes you’ve never heard of, but would do well to know.
This column tells a few fun stories that I think you’ll like. If the reaction is there, I’d be happy to try to do it again in a few weeks. Got a question? Got something you think I should tackle? Write it in. I see everything that comes in, and if I can make this stuff more enjoyable for you to read, that’s a win for me.
With that said, here we go!
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Back in the spring of 2013, a colleague of mine at The Saratogian went to cover a high school baseball game featuring the paper’s hometown team. The Saratoga Springs Blue Streaks’ best player was Alex Chandler, who went on to play for four years at St. Rose, a Division II college, following his graduation. This particular game, though, was not Alex’s finest hour. He committed four errors, and my colleague did his job by writing about it in a truthful, honest fashion. The writer didn’t go out of his way to humiliate the kid, but he did note the facts, since these misplays were pivotal points in the game.
When the athletic department at the school saw the story, certain officials went ballistic. They claimed that the story should have said the team made four errors, not one particular player. Everyone at the paper thought that rationale was ridiculous, as it’s the job of a sportswriter to accurately tell the story of a game’s events. Eventually, all parties involved got over it, or, more accurately, got tired of screaming at one another and agreed to stop. The truce put an end to that matter…or so I thought.
A few months later, I covered a summer league game featuring the Saratoga Stampede, a local American Legion team that featured many of the same kids that were on the Saratoga Springs High School team. Their coach that year was Eric Thompson, an assistant at Skidmore College that I had a great relationship with thanks to many basketball games spent with him working the table and me not being willing or able to shut up (shout out to Skidmore SID Bill Jones, who will gladly verify that fact if asked!).
I got to the field, shook Eric’s hand, and talked with him for several minutes, all the while noticing several teenagers giving me the dreaded stink-eye (important note: Alex Chandler was not in attendance that night). I thought it was curious, but I hadn’t done anything to those kids. After all, I was the lacrosse writer that spring and didn’t cover a single inning of high school baseball. For that reason, I didn’t sweat it as I walked to the visitor’s dugout to get their lineup.
As I walked back the other way to my seat in the bleachers, though, I heard Eric lay into several of his players, and I will never forget what he said or how he said it.
“IF DEREK JETER COMMITTED FOUR ERRORS IN A GAME, DO YOU REALLY THINK THE NEW YORK POST WOULD SAY THE YANKEES COMMITTED FOUR ERRORS?!?!?!”
It was all I could do to not burst out laughing as the kids stood there, positively shell-shocked by what they were hearing. I don’t even know if Eric knew how much delight I took in hearing that, but he certainly knows now. Eric: Find some way to get Skidmore a West Coast swing!
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THE BEST HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL GAME I’VE EVER SEEN, AND THE BEST DEADLINE-DRIVEN WRITING I’VE EVER DONE
Two very small towns between the New York State Northway and the New York-Vermont border each house high school football teams that were competitive at a state-wide level when I wrote for The Saratogian. In 2012, they came together for a night I’ll never forget.
Cambridge was one of the top-ranked Class D football teams in the state. They were experienced, had tons of athleticism for a school that small, and had an aggressive coach that didn’t hesitate to use said athleticism against overmatched foes. Their rival, Greenwich, didn’t necessarily have the speed or quickness to contend with them, but what they did have was running back John Barnes.
You know the old football adage about certain coaches having three plays: Run left, run right, run up the middle? This game was that mantra, come to life. John Barnes carried the football 46 times for 377 yards that night, an average of more than eight yards per carry (as if that wasn’t enough, he also added one catch for 30 yards). However, Cambridge, which played from behind for most of the night, tied the game in the fourth quarter, stuffed Barnes at the goal line on the last play of regulation, and won in overtime on the fourth touchdown run of the contest by that team’s own star running back, Matt Parmenter. Side note: Only later did I find out that Barnes had lost his grandmother shortly before the game, which added to the stream of tears he talked to me through. To his everlasting credit, when an assistant coach saw him crying and tried to end the interview early, Barnes waved him off and finished talking to me.
The game started at 7 p.m., and it was over at around 10. By the time I had gotten my interviews and moved to a place where I could write the recap, it was shortly after 10:30. The Saratogian’s hard deadline was 11, and the closest thing I had to an office was the front seat of my 2007 Chevy Impala.
I wrote like a madman, trying to convey the emotions of what had happened along with the enormity of the performance John Barnes put together in the loss and how this one game sent both programs on opposite paths for the rest of the season. Twenty minutes later (at about 10:53), I wound up with what I still consider to be the best piece of deadline-driven journalism I’ve ever written. If you’re so inclined, you can read it here.
Oh, and if any of you know John Barnes, thank him for me, would you?
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BREAKING UP A ROAD TRIP LIKE A DEGENERATE
Back in 2010, I, like every other college student who graduated that year, was beating the pavement looking for work relevant to the field I was in. The economy was a mess, and amidst many stories I could tell about my time looking for a job (there’s no shortage of them, and they’ll pop up whenever I write this stuff), I’ll focus on one a lot of you will get a kick out of.
I had secured an in-person interview for a news reporter position at a radio station in Charleston, West Virginia. This may not be tops on your list of vacation destinations, but for a recently-graduated Television-Radio major at Ithaca College, this was a big deal. According to recent Nielsen data, it’s the 70th-biggest media market in the United States, and it’s not often that a new college graduate breaks in, on the air, in a top-100 market.
I packed a bag, drove my car for the better part of 12 hours (it should’ve only taken 10 from New York’s Hudson Valley, but traffic was heavy through Pennsylvania), and arrived at a Best Western down the road from the station. My interview the next day went well (or so I thought), and after stopping at another motel near the West Virginia-Maryland border, I set about driving the rest of the way home.
You know the feeling you can get when you’ve been in a car for 18 hours over a three-day period? If it could be described in words, it would say, “I don’t care where I stop, BUT I NEED TO GET OUT OF THIS CAR!!!” That’s how I felt going through central Pennsylvania with no company but the car radio, so I started looking for a spot to pull over. All I was looking for was a rest stop with a picnic table and a vending machine, just a place where I could park the car for 20 minutes or so, breathe in some fresh air, stretch my legs, and clear my head.
Imagine my shock when I started seeing signs for Penn National.
I had never been to Penn National, and given that the day I rolled through was a dark day, I would not be seeing any racing there. What I did take in, in vivid detail, were the bright lights, loud sounds, and pretty colors that could only be associated with one thing: A casino.
I strolled in and found a $15 blackjack table, which at the time was the lowest-limit game they spread on the casino floor. To this day, I don’t understand why I sat down and bought $100 in chips. Even now, when I go to Vegas, I usually play $5 blackjack. I will occasionally play $10 blackjack if the structure is agreeable or I find a good “blackjack switch” game (you play two hands and can switch the top cards, and in return, blackjacks pay even-money and all dealer 22’s are pushes; at this point, my father is probably shaking his head just reading my description). That said, even in a comfortable financial state, I don’t touch $15 blackjack.
You probably think this is setting up for me to get killed, but in a plot twist, the gambling gods were kind to me. I played just one shoe, killed the 20 minutes I wanted to kill, and walked away with enough of a profit to fill my gas tank a few hours later in the middle of nowhere. Plenty of eye-rolling ensued when I told my parents about the unplanned pit stop later that night!
And no, I didn’t get the job. They were nice people, and it makes for a heck of a “what-if,” but ultimately, I firmly believe that I got to where I’m supposed to be…which seems like as good a spot as any to end this week’s column.