Tuesday, July 15, 2008

There's a guy with one arm pitching a no-hitter at Yankee Stadium

As a lifelong New York Yankee fan, the All-Star festivities have been special for me and Josh Hamilton's performance in the Home Run Derby may be the last great moment in the House that Ruth Built unless the Yankees rally into the post-season or we see a perfect game.
I've been fortunate enough to see a handful of great moments in the Bronx. The first one came on July 24th, 1983. The Middletown, NJ Swim Club had a bus trip to see the Royals and the Yankees and my Mom (a non-sports fan in every sense of the word), took me to set up shop in the upper deck. With 2 outs inn the 9th inning, Goose Gossage made a mistake to George Brett and a 2 run homer gave the Royals a 5-4 lead. Gossage will be inducted together into Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame later this month. Yankees manager Billy Martin came out and there was a lot of people in the stands asking what was going on as Brett's bat came out of the dugout and was laid across home plate. As a 13 year old, I remember saying to the fans sitting around me that they were measuring the amount of pine tar on his bat. I was engulfed in Yankee baseball, never missing a broadcast and I remember hearing discussion about Brett using a lot of pine tar on his bat. Umpire Tim McClelland called Brett out and one of the most famous scenes in baseball lore happened. An enraged Brett stormed out of the dugout and it took about half of the Royals to hold him back. (YouTube this if you haven't seen it!) Just by pure luck, I was in attendance in what will forver be known as the Pine Tar Game.
I've been to two World Series games at Yankee Stadium. In 1998, my wife and I on a whim decided to drive from Bangor, Maine down to the Bronx to try and scalp tickets to game one of the World Series. It was a fun adventure, and I was able to get two tickets in the bleachers for $125 each (a pretty good bargain) 10 minutes before the first pitch. Paranoid that I was getting counterfeit tickets, I made the scalper walk with us up to the gate to make sure we got in. We saw a 9-6 Yankees win as Tino Martinez sparked a 7 run 7th inning.
While working in 1999 in Bangor, we covered the Boston Red Sox and were able to secure credentials for the ALCS. My weekend sports anchor was able to go to Fenway and cover the Yankees 4 games to 1 series win. When you apply for post-season credentials, the normal procedure for a local TV affiliate is to get passes until your local team is eliminated. We were surprised to get a phone call in our sports office from Major League Baseball asking if we were going to use our World Series credentials. Calmly, I answered yes. We couldn't turn down a chance to cover a World Series game. Game four against the Atlanta Braves at Yankee Stadium had our chief meteorologist, Rob Nucatola, and I hit the road. I don't know what it is, but weather guys are the best road trip sidekicks (see Ed Piotrowski and about 25 CCU road trips!). I don't know how we did it, but I was actually live on the field at Yankee Stadium at 6:20 pm prior to the World Series. The Yankees won the game, Roger Clemens got his first world series ring and we got a boat load of sound bites on the field. The locker room was so overloaded with media and VIP's, that we were able to get interviews with Scott Brosius, Jim Leyritz, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada and a host of others virtually one on one. On the outside, you have to stay professional, but on the inside you have goose bumps knowing you are standing on the field that you grew up watching as a kid - that I was standing on the same field as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and countless others.
This brings me to my favorite Yankee Stadium moment. My television career began behind the scenes at WCBS-TV in New York. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity and worked my way to associate sports producer. I was producing the weekend sportscasts for Steve Levy, now at ESPN. Steve began his career at WFAN, the all sports radio station in New York City. He actually worked on the radio early Saturday afternoon before he came into work at the TV station. It was my job to set the table - come in early and get the rundown started and begin recording the games that we were going to show highlights of. It was a Saturday afternoon in early September, 1993 and the Yankees were hosting the Cleveland Indians. Jim Abbott was the starting pitcher. For those who don't know, Abbott is an amazing story. He was born without a right hand and was able to pitch with his glove tucked under his right arm and in a seemless motion, could get the glove onto his left hand by the time the ball reached home plate. He was a very good fielding pitcher. You can get mesmerized just watching him do this alone. On this day, Abbott was dialed in. You never take a no-hitter seriously until about the 6th inning and when Abbott hadn't allowed a hit, I realized that maybe something special was going to happen.
I was a kid. 23 years old and working in New York City. There were so many people working at Channel 2 and I was so low on the totem pole that less than half the people on staff knew my name. There was always a higher level sports producer around or an anchor except on Saturday's. It was about a 20 minute drive from WCBS to Yankee Stadium. If Abbott got through the 6th with a no-hitter intact, I had to go to the assignment desk and get a camera crew and get to the Bronx in case history was made. Sure enough, at the end of 6, the Indians still had a zero in the hit column. I walked from the sports office to the newsroom and went to the woman sitting behind the central nervous system of WCBS. She definitely didn't know my name. I told her I needed to get a cameraman to go with me to Yankees Stadium ASAP. She said to me "I'll see what I can do and get back to you". At this point, for the first time and honestly the only time in my New York career, I got a little courage. "There's a guy with one arm pitching a no-hitter at Yankee Stadium. Trust me, we need to be there right now." Fortunately, I was on my way downstairs and on the West Side Highway to the Bronx. I got to the Stadium in bottom of the 8th which is pretty good time. I sat in the bowels of the stadium and just listened to the roar of the crowd. Even though I didn't see that 9th inning, the crowd dictated to me that history was made. I was in place and was able to get post-game interviews with Abbott, Wade Boggs (who made a great defensive play to keep the no-hitter intact) and everyone else involved. I remember Levy calling in to the sports office and saying to me "Please tell me you just got back from the Stadium" - to which I replied "Yes". If I didn't say yes, I'd probably be teaching tennis in New Jersey and out of the business before I ever really got into it. The fact that Steve trusted me to get the job done was one of the most significant moments in my career. If it was any other day, I would have been holed up in the sports office answering phones and logging highlights. That no-hitter story gave me the confidence that I can work a big story and I went from "Who's that kid" in the newroom to "Hey that's one of the sports producers" (most of them still didn't know my name!). I'm glad that moment happened at such a special place. I'm sure the new Yankee Stadium will be a palace, but I'm sure it won't be the same.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

My link with Pete Sampras

Tonight on my sportscast I showed highlights of Serena Williams advancing to the Wimbledon final with a 6-2, 7-6 win over Zheng Jie. In those highlights, I showed a ballboy who collided into Serena at almost full speed. It brought back memories of my days as a ballboy. That's right, I had the Reebok red and blue outfit in the back row of the 1987 US Open. I went to a tryout at Flushing Meadow and the USTA National Tennis Center and made the cut to work the back row. Basically, I was throwing balls on one perfect bounce to a player and during changeovers, throwing balls across the court to my comrades in the back row. There is a pecking order in the ballboy world. A newbie like myself was not going to get thrown on the stadium court or the grandstand. I never did get on to the main two courts - my highlight of my ballboy career was working a match on court 16 (at the time, one of the larger outer courts in Flushing Meadow) with Carling Bassett-Seguso, who was the Anna Kournikova of 1987. As for the low point of my ballboy career, that would come in a women's doubles match. Raffaella Reggi, who was an Italian ranked in the top 20 in women's singles, was playing in a doubles match. During changeovers, we would have to throw tennis balls across court and I was in my routine of throwing line drives when miss Reggi walked right into one of my throws. It hit her sqaure on the head. Fortunately, there were only about 50 people watching the match, but they all managed to gasp. I thought it was going to be my last match. It probably would have been if it was on the stadium or grandstand, but Reggi laughed, I apologized profusely and she and her partner won the match easily in straight sets.
The highlight of the ballboy experience was getting the chance to actually play at the USTA National Tennis Center. My high school teammate, Chris Gambino, was a highly ranked national player who was on standby to get into the US Open boys singles draw. He didn't get to play in the event, but he was working as a court attendant during the Open and was allowed to practice on the courts because he was on standby. We would get there early and hit balls before the matches got started at 11am. The court attendant gig was way better than ballboy - all you had to worry about was getting towels, and relaying scores.
I can thank Chris Gambino for my one and only significant match as a varsity tennis player in high school. I started playing tennis at around the age of 12 and got hooked. There was a tremendous public courts program that became my summer job and was responsible for my passion for tennis. My high school, Christian Brothers Academy, had the reputation as one of the best tennis programs in New Jersey. For five years, I practiced and took many lessons with the hopes of maybe, just maybe I could start for the CBA tennis team in my senior season. Alas, I got to my senior year and was the 8th player on the depth chart. Unfortunately, seven players play (3 singles and two doubles teams). All of the hard work did not pay off. The beauty of tennis is there is no one to blame about the starting lineup. You beat a player head to head and you move up the ladder. No excuses, I was the 8th best player. Granted, I probably would have started for any other team in the state of New Jersey. That's what many people told me, and I didn't believe them until mid-season.
Newark Academy held a mid-season tournament where the top 8 teams in the state were invited to play head to head and have an idea of who was the favorite heading into the later part of the year. We were ranked #2 in the state and drew the #7 team in the first round. I was ready to ride the bench as usual. Gambino was playing in a pro qualifer tournament the same day as our match. He was playing a world ranked player and he thought he'd be able to come to our match in plenty of time. We were getting ready to leave for our match when our coach got the call - Chris beat this world ranked player and would not be playing in our match. For the first time ever, I got the call to play in a varsity tennis match. I played second doubles with Brian Bocker and won the match in straight sets. While I was playing my first varsity match, Chris Gambino was playing a 16 year old phenom named Pete Sampras (he lost to Pistol Pete 7-5,7-5 if I recall). Our tennis team went on to a perfect season and a state championship and I played in a handful of matches against weaker teams on our schedule.
The confidence of that one match kept me going. I won a doubles invitational with our #2 player Joe Clemente after the season and got a chance to play tennis at Saint Bonaventure. I played three years of NCAA Division I tennis despite playing a grand total of 8 matches in my high school career.
Sure, it's sixteen degrees of separation, but I always feel I'll be forever linked to one of the greatest tennis players in history and if it wasn't for him, I may have never felt what it was like to truly win on a tennis court.