Sunday, February 21, 2010

Giggling gymnasts and confusing track meets: The life of a reporter

Today I attended the final day of the the Big East Indoor Track & Field Championships. The two-day event took place at the Armory Track and Field Center, which sits in the heart of the Columbia University Medical Center at 168th Street in New York. The facility in the Armory is considered one of the premier indoor track facilities in the country. It's 10 minutes from our place. I thought it was finally time to visit.

Growing up, I greeted track and field competitions with little enthusiasm. As a little kid we watched my uncle sprint and that was fun. But I fell out of love with track - and field - in about the third grade, when my days of dominance in the elementary school's Track-o-Rama ended and my days of slow-speed sprints began. Until that time I was one of the fastest kids in my class, routinely chasing down my slow-footed classmates during gym class. Don't know what happened, but Track-o-Rama exposed my speed deficiency, although I still managed to usually avoid the "I tried" ribbons, shameful decorations teachers handed out to those who tried, sure, but actually failed.

Basketball, baseball, football, tennis, loved them all. But none of them required me to run short distances in explosive fashion, or long distances with confident strides and strong lungs. Because I no longer possessed the physical skills needed for track and field success, my interest in the sport waned. I went to our high school meets to watch friends. Attended the state track and field meet with my parents a few times. But the point of running just to run - with nothing such as a rabid dog chasing me and nothing waiting at the end, whether a basket, touchdown or home plate - seemed mostly meaningless and slightly inhumane.

I still appreciated the athleticism on display at any random track meet. A teacher who coached three sports once told me that the greatest collection of athletes was always at a state track and field meet. I scoffed, but only because I liked to argue with the guy. Many top stars of the fall and winter sports congregated on the track in the spring, whether it was the running backs dominating the 100-meter dash or the volleyball stars winning high-jump titles. But still, the idea of sitting at a meet for five, six, seven...eight hours, did not appeal to me.

Then I started working as a sports reporter. Track and field meets became weekly fixtures during the spring. Covering them always causes some difficulties for any reporter, as there's simply so much going on that it can be difficult finding a good storyline amidst all the action. Is another victory by a favorite in the sprints a better story than an upset in the mile? Is a close finish in the 1,600-meter relay more interesting than a meet record in the high jump? But newspapers pay reporters 20,000-plus dollars to make those difficult decisions. I covered major regular season competitions and state meets.

Covering track and field was not the most exciting part of my job, but it certainly wasn't the worst. Some random thoughts on covering certain sports:

* The most torturous interview I ever did was with a high school gymnast, a girl in the ninth grade who had the emotional maturity of someone in the second grade. But she was an outstanding gymnast, even if she had the social awareness of a feral child. She was a giggling 14-year-old reared on the legend of Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug. I interviewed her at her house. She sat on one end of the couch, with me on the other end. Grinning Mom plopped down in the middle. She answered the questions before her daughter could process them. I'd ask, "So how long have you been in gymnastics," and the stage mom replied, "Jessica (not her real name) has loved gymnastics since she was 5." The girl smiled and giggled, which apparently meant this was a true statement and I could note it. The mom answered questions she liked. She brushed off ones she didn't with the efficiency of a White House spokesman disregarding a pushy pool reporter. The ensuing feature was not one of my better efforts. But the mom loved it.

* Football games were always fun, though they could be brutal when the calendar turned over into November. Most high schools have some type of press box, but even if a school did have one, I'd often watch the game on the sidelines. Cold weather played havoc at many games. I dressed in layers, on my body, hands and feet. But no matter how many socks I wore, my feet froze by halftime. And no matter how many pairs of gloves I sported, my hands froze by the end of the first quarter. Feet are one thing; if the worst happened and I lost both to amputation because of frostbite, I could still work, though my days of pickup basketball would likely end. But frozen hands made it nearly impossible to write. I gripped the pen with my entire hand, the way you'd hold a knife before stabbing. Ink proved no match for the conditions, so I'd bring five or six pens along, hoping that at least one would survive until the end of the game. I never had to resort to writing in my own blood, but I came close.

* Baseball games were always relaxing, when they were actually played. In Minnesota, spring sports seem to last about four weeks and are less-intense than fall and winter activities. Same for softball, provided the teams were fairly equal. The first softball game I ever covered had a final score of 50-0, and it really wasn't that close. Fortunately, the losing team, according to the coach, "played hard." The only thing missing were some purple "I tried" ribbons.

* Basketball. Favorite sport to play, favorite sport to watch, favorite sport to write about. One of the strangest games I saw involved a contest that ended with the wrong score. It was a boys game between Worthington and Marshall. Late in the game, Worthington had a three-point lead but the scoreboard showed it as a two-point lead. The confusion had come from a 3-pointer a few moments earlier. The refs huddled and talked about it for several minutes. But not only was the scoreboard wrong, but so was the scorebook. I was sitting in the front row and had noted when the mistake happened, but didn't volunteer my information. Usually in those situations the fans are watching the scoreboard closely and would yell if anything posted incorrectly, but they didn't in this case. Inevitably, Marshall hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds for the victory, when it should have actually only tied the game. Worthington coach Ron Vorwald recently won his 300th game. He probably should have been credited with it one game earlier.

* Strangely, perhaps the two most exciting events I covered were high school wrestling matches. Strange because for the first 18 years of my life I considered wrestlers to be rivals, sometimes even enemies. Wrestlers and basketball players didn't mix back in high school. It wasn't exactly the Greasers vs. the Socs, but we weren't very friendly. Wrestlers wore shirts bragging about how tough their sport was while we ridiculed their sport, though our practices were roughly 50 times easier than theirs. But as a reporter, I covered two matches between a pair of wrestlers named Nate Baker and Bryan Cowdin. They both won multiple state championships. Both were two of the best wrestlers in the nation at the time.

They met in the regular season two straight years. Both times, the area counted down the days to their showdowns, as if a heavyweight boxing match was coming to town. The team competition wasn't even a competition - Baker's team was one of the best in the state, while Cowdin's was...not. But both guys were physically overpowering, dominant, pinning machines who made a mockery of their other foes. The crowd slept for the beginning of the team match, but when those two came running out and the spotlight lit them up in the middle of the mat, it was Vision Quest brought to life. Even an old basketball player and fan like myself couldn't help but get caught up in the moment. Both years, Baker won in the final seconds as the matches lived up to the hype two straight times. Praising wrestling. As a high schooler, never thought I'd type those words.

But it was fun covering every sport, even day-long track and field meets. Anything beat being in the office taking agate. Track and field agate and swimming agate are the bane of any sports desk worker's existence. They dread the phone call that begins with the person on the other end saying, "I've got the results from the 32-team Swimming Invitational held at Central High School today. Boys. And girls." Agh. The next 45 minutes would be spent on the phone, taking the top five or six finishers in all 87 events. Fingers bled, along with ears. Give me a giggling gymnast over swimming agate any day.

Today I watched as a guy in slacks and a nice shirt with a notebook in his hand approached the winner of the men's 1,000-meter race. The interview lasted about 10 minutes. The reporter shook hands with the victorious runner. Then the writer looked around, slightly confused as the chatty public address announcer rattled off the results of the previous race. Looking for an athlete he apparently couldn't find, the reporter wandered around for a few more minutes before walking back to the media room with a slight shake of his head. I sympathized with him. Track and field meets can be confusing things. But at least the guy didn't have to type up the agate.

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