A Super Game

Chances are, unless you live in an area that has absolutely no access to newspapers, television, radio or the internet (at which case you would most likely not be reading this) you know that this Sunday, February 3, 2013, marks a special occasion for sports fans across the globe.  This Sunday will mark the 47th, or for you Latin speakers and tiny Roman pizza mascots out there the  XLVII, edition of the big showdown pitting the best of the American Football Conference against the best of the National Football Conference in a little game called the Super Bowl.  This year the Super Bowl is in New Orleans and will pit the Baltimore Ravens, coached by John Harbaugh, against the San Fransisco 49ers, coached by Jim Harbaugh, in the battle for the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy.  From its humble beginnings in 1967 to the juggernaut it has become today, the Super Bowl is one of, if not the, most watched sporting events of the calendar year and captures the interest of both hardcore and casual fan alike.

While I am primarily a baseball fan, I do enjoy football as well and have watched every Super Bowl for as long as I can remember.  While most of those games were viewed in one form or another from a couch and involved eating lots of little smokies, cheese and other assorted snacks, there was one game that occurred nine years ago today where I was fortunate enough to go from being a Super Bowl fan to a Super Bowl reporter. In 2004 I was given the opportunity to go behind the curtain as it were to see what makes the big game tick.  I was the sports editor for a small daily newspaper in the suburbs of Houston at the time and just for fun I decided to apply for media credentials when I heard that the Super Bowl would be in town that year.  Much to my surprise a few weeks after applying I was awarded full access credentials for the game and all of the surrounding festivities.  Thus begin a week I will not soon forget.

While I had always guessed that covering the big game would be special I had no idea how special of a time it would be.  For starters the game on Sunday is merely the culmination and finale of a week of festivities that features players and coaches from the past and present mingling with reporters in a variety of situations.  Covering Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston included several I can’t believe I just did that moments including interviewing Bret Farve and seeing several of the players from the Washington Redskins that I grew up watching as a youngster.  Even if that were all the Super Week excitement, it would have been plenty but there was much more to behold.  Each day included question and answer sessions as well as a media work room stocked full of all of the essentials that the working reporter needed to file their stories; from media guides to free Power Ade and more.  I had covered many sporting events up until that point but this was the grand daddy of them all and the NFL definitely knew how to treat reporters on its biggest stage.  If you were a reporter and could think of it, chances are it was somewhere within arms length in the building.

Photo R. Anderson
The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum home of the first AFC vs. NFC Championship game in 1967. In later years the game would come to be known as the Super Bowl.
Photo R. Anderson

I doubt very much that those players in the first AFC vs. NFC Championship game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum back in 1967 had any idea how big the game would become.   In addition to the game on the field billions upon billions of dollars are spent each year in advertising during the game and the ever increasing hours of pregame coverage leading up to it.  I minored in advertising in college and am probably one of the few people who actually enjoys commercial breaks almost as much as the normal show I am watching.  So, the Super Bowl, where advertisers put their best foot forward to one up each other and try to introduce that one advertisement that will be the talk of the water cooler on Monday, provides an extra thrill for the most seasoned as well as the most novice of advertising consumers.

Speaking of extra thrills, the NFL does not leave the reporters out when it comes to ensuring that their game day experience is ideal.  In addition to a free game day breakfast, food is provided throughout the day for reporters working the game.  What’s that you say, you are a reporter who has been at the stadium several hours before kickoff and you are afraid that the rigid plastic stadium seat will lead to health problems including numbness in the posterior region if you sit on it any longer;  don’t worry the NFL has that covered as well with a reporter game day survival kit or “goodie bag.” I can only speak for the game I covered but I am sure there are similar goodie bags each year.  My goodie bag at the game included an attache case, a mini radio, a seat cushion, a note pad, a hat, and a pin that was a model of Reliant Stadium complete with retractable roof.  And of course, each of these items was emblazoned with the logo for the game lest anyone get confused about where they came from.  Having worked in both public relations and sports information I know that the goodie bags are a way for the NFL to try to ensure that the reporters are happy and in turn write more positive things about them.  The reporters know this and the NFL knows that the reporters know this.  The good reporters are not swayed by the goodie bags and free baubles that the NFL provides them but don’t get me wrong free baubles are always nice.  Plus, after awhile that seat cushion really comes in handy for even the most seasoned of reporter rumps that are used to sitting in bleachers and stadium seats for hours at a time.

A selection of some of the "freebies" ended out to reporters covering the Super Bowl. Photo R. Anderson
A selection of some of the “freebies” handed out to reporters covering the Super Bowl.
Photo R. Anderson

So it is Super Bowl time again and reporters have descended upon New Orleans a week early to try and get every angle they can about the players as well as the fans.  This year the pregame coverage will no doubt focus on the fact that there are brothers coaching against each other for the first time in the big game. Other story lines will include the retirement of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and the fact that the Saints failed in their bid to be the first team to play in the Super Bowl in their home stadium.  Sure, there will be other stories as well as the network tries to squeeze six hours or more of interesting stories on the air ahead of the game but those will probably be the big ones.  After all, the longer the pregame, the more ads, and in turn the more money the network makes.  This is big business after all.

So on Sunday when you curl up on the couch, or other viewing venue, to catch the big game think of the reporters who have labored tirelessly all week to cover it. And also think that at that very moment many of them are sitting high up in the rafters of the Superdome on a comfy seat cushion listening to the coverage on a little radio and jotting things down in a notepad that the NFL gave them.  Covering Super Bowls is certainly good work if you can get it and for one magical week back in 2004 I lived the dream of every sports reporter.  A year after my Super Bowl experience I almost hit the daily double of big ticket sports reporting but I missed my chance to cover the Major League Baseball All-Star game due to a reduction in the work force at the newspaper I was working at.  I would have loved to cover the All Star Game and compare how Major League Baseball and the NFL differ in handling their showcase events but I really have no regrets and can’t complain about missing that opportunity.  Who knows, maybe I will yet get to cover an All-Star Game.  But, for one whole week I was a Super Bowl reporter and I have the press badge and various freebies to prove it. Even nine years later I still consider that pretty cool.  Now if you’ll excuse me I think I will dust off that Super Bowl XXXVIII seat cushion for old times sake since all of this typing and sitting really has my lower back a little sore.

Copyright 2013 R. Anderson

The Family Ties

If we all stop to think about it, chances are many of our interests in life, both good and bad, are influenced by our family members.  Sometimes we have interests that run counter to the rest of our family although many other times the family ties that bind us include similar interests running throughout the generations.  From a favorite soda, favorite sports teams and everything in between odds are in some way the choices we make are in some small way influenced by our exposure growing up.  I have already mentioned the influence that my mother had on my love of baseball but she was far from the only generation in my family to follow the game and in turn share their love for it with me.  Now up to bat, my two grandmothers, Granny and Mom Mom who each in their own way shaped how I picture the game and have their own place in my Hall of Fame.

Let us begin with my grandmother on my mother’s side; Edna Kirby, or Granny as she is known to me.  Granny lives in Georgia which as many of you know is home to the Atlanta Braves.  Despite living about four hours away from Atlanta, Granny always made it a point to watch her beloved Braves whenever they would come on.  There were definitely some lean years to be a Braves fan but still she would soldier on with her devotion to her boys and most of all Chipper Jones.  Whenever Chipper Jones would make a great play shouts of “attaboy Chipper” would resonate from my grandmother’s recliner.  And, whenever Chipper would strike out or make a bad fielding play the battle cry turned to “oh Chipper.”

Checking up on Chipper
Checking up on Chipper at Astros Spring Training in Kissimmee, FL.
Photo by R. Anderson

A few years back my mother and I traveled from Texas to Georgia to visit my grandmother in the hospital.  While it was never spoken out loud in the car we both feared that maybe we were driving to say good bye to her based on the severity of why we thought she had been admitted to the hospital.  After driving for 16 hours straight we arrived at the hospital and prepared for the worst as we approached the small rural hospital.   Nothing really could have prepared us for what we saw though once we got inside though.  Instead of a woman near death we found my grandmother standing in the hall in her hospital gown shouting to us to hurry up since the Braves game was on.  She did not wait for us to get down the hall. Instead, she turned and went back in her room.  By the time we got to her room she was already back in bed and giving us a recap of the game and asking what took us so long to get there.  Near death indeed, she was as full of life as ever and it was yet another time to talk about the Braves.  To this day whenever we talk to each other the conversation inevitably turns to the subject of how the Braves are doing.

Granny now lives in a nursing home and as often happens when a loved one makes the move to that stage in their live the larger furnishings and other accumulated belongings are divided up amongst the family since there is no room for them in the nursing home. There were not too many items of my grandmother’s that I wanted but  I made sure I got her television.  It is far from a new television, in fact it is down right old and heavy by today’s standards.  There are no HD channels or flat screen components yet to me it is the most valuable TV in the world. For you see, this television that now sits on a dresser in my bedroom is the very same television that showed all of those Braves games that she and I shared together.  Sure there are other channels that the TV gets but for me it is the Braves TV and everytime I see it or power it on I think of her and our shared bond over the game of baseball.   And on those rare occasions when a Braves game is being shown in Houston I smile a little wider because I know we are both watching the same game.

***

My other Grandmother, Pat Hall, or Mom Mom as I call her, also shares a deep love for baseball and for years she lived in the perfect area to take advantage of that.  After retiring Mom Mom and my grandfather moved from Maryland to the west coast of Florida near Bradenton.  In addition to being located near some really nice beaches which made for great summer days in the surf as well as year round fishing, there was proximity to baseball; lots and lots of baseball.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the layout of baseball in Florida there are several teams that hold their Spring Training games in and around the west coast of the Sunshine State as noted in the photo I took in Sarasota at the Orioles Spring Training facility.  Each year when Spring Training rolled around Mom Mom and I would try to plan when  I could come down and catch a game with her. Sadly it never worked out that we could see a game in Bradenton but we were able to see several games in Orlando.

A map of the teams that call the Grapefruit League in Florida their Spring Training home.Photo by R. Anderson
A map of the teams that call the Grapefruit League in Florida their Spring Training home.
Photo by R. Anderson

Mom Mom also helped add to my autograph collection as she interacted with many ball players through a part time job that she had at a restaurant that was owned by a former player in the Pirates organization.  Every so often a new package filled with autographs of people that she had met would arrive in the mail.  Many of those autographs are still displayed in my office.  One particularly cool item from those years is an autographed team ball for the Bradenton Explorers of the Senior Professional Baseball Association.  The league disbanded after a single season so I consider that extra cool to have that memento of a forgotten era.  During one visit to her restaurant I was also introduced to college basketball announcer Dick Vitale.  I met him before I really knew who he was so there was not a huge wow factor aside from the normal pleasantries of being introduced to someone and being told that they were famous. Once I did learn who he was I must say as he would surely say, “it was awesome baby.”

Like Granny, Mom Mom also has now moved from the home that she knew to enter that next phase of her life which includes assisted living facilities and the knowledge that the years ahead are fewer than the years behind them.  Still, both women remain strong influences on me as a person in all aspects of my life but the influence on the aspects that involve baseball are surely hard to miss.  Some day I am sure that I will join the line of people to influence the next generation and in turn they will go on to spread the knowledge and love as well.  That is part of the great experience of life. Each generation shares what they know to the next and it builds from there.  It also shows the generation to generation appeal of the National Pastime. Like us, the game gets bruised and tattered now and then but it gets up, wipes the orange clay and grass off and moves ahead.  We should all strive to be as resilient.  Now if you’ll excuse me I think it is time to see how the Braves are doing.

Copyright 2013 R. Anderson

Danicky, Danicky, Danicky

It was recently announced that NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie drivers Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. were a couple.  While workplace romances have been going on for as long as there have been workplaces this particular high octane power couple marks somewhat of new territory for both sports writers and sports fans.  And, if the early media coverage of the power couple is any indication this is either the greatest thing to happen to racing since cars were first made to go fast, or it is the beginning of the end of racing as we know it like some sort of Danicky Apocalypse where the only thing left standing will be a few campers in the infield that were protected from the onslaught by a well-timed trip to the porta-potty.  I can see it now the reporters will gather in the media center and comment about how the Mayan calendar end of world talk was nothing compared to the coming terror that is Danicky.

(Editor’s Note: At the time of this writing I have not heard what the power couple’s nickname is, since if history has taught us anything it is that every power couple has to have a cute little nickname combining their names a la Branjelina, Benifer, etc. etc.  So with the field wide open on naming rights for the Danica/Ricky romance I maintain and have hence forth noted that they will be known as Danicky.  Remember kids, you heard it here first.)

Danica Patrick at TMS
Danica Patrick at Texas Motor Speedway in 2011.
Photo by R. Anderson

So let us examine both sides of the media coin since we all know there can be no middle ground in this 24-hour news cycle world where if it bleeds it leads and sex sells.  The sportswriters and gossip columnists will have a field day with tracking the comings and goings of this historic coupling among racing rivals.  Aside from the built in star power that comes with “the Brand” known as Danica Patrick there is the realization that this is the first time that two athletes that compete against each other regularly are openly dating.

To be fair NASCAR is the only major sport at the moment that has drivers of both sexes competing so the odds were stacked more in its favor to be the first sport to have this occur, but, it is equally plausible that there may come a day when two openly gay ballplayers enter into an equally high profile relationship.  But since that has not yet happened let us turn our sights back onto the track and Danicky.

Ricky Stenhouse at TMS
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. climbing into his car before the 2011 Nationwide race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Photo by R. Anderson

While Danica Patrick is by far the more recognizable member of Danicky, the “icky” part is no slouch in racing circles having won consecutive Nationwide Titles prior to making the jump to the Sprint Cup.  So Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. has the racing trophies to back up his street cred.  Of course Danica has her one Indy Racing League win and lots and lots of Super Bowl commercials and other interests away from the track so she still has the more famous body of work.  So how exactly did Danicky come to be? Early indications of the newly minted power couple show that they were friends for years before making the leap to coupledom.  They also didn’t let a little thing like Danica still be married get in the way of announcing the happy news.  Remember boys and girls this is not your granddaddy’s NASCAR.  The Danicky pairing follows a slightly less covered event of a certain car owner marrying one of his drivers a few years back.  And there are many other examples of love at the track where people have been hooking up in the garage area and the pits for years. The previous pairings just normally involved a driver marrying his publicist or one of the women who hold the trophy and smile in victory lane.

So aside from the obvious issues of whether the romantic link off the track will lead to on track cooperation let us first in good faith get all of the potential jokes out of the system.  Danica herself stated in an Associated Press story when she confirmed the rumor that had been rampant for months that she was enjoying all of the jokes about bump drafting. While bump drafting is all fine and good let us not forget the other age old adage in NASCAR that “rubbin is racing.”  And of course one needs to remember to pull those belts tight prior to dropping the green flag.  There is also the little issue of who will stand at which car during the National Anthem since it is customary for the drivers and their significant others to stand together and give a little good luck kiss before climbing into their cars.  And will it be a shared motor home or separate motor home on racing weekends?  Maybe the sportswriters were right and this is the Danicky Apocalypse with so little time to answer all of these questions before the start of the Daytona 500. But alas. I digress.

When all the facts are weighed I tend to be in the camp that the racing will still be the same on the track as it would be with two teammates helping each other out.  Both sides of the Danicky coin are too competitive to have it any other way. Plus, there is that whole issue of keeping sponsors happy and so forth.  So, while two drivers dating is something the sport has not seen at this level before it is surely not the beginning of the end of the sport.  It does create the interesting question of who will do the driving when they aren’t on the track though.  Something tells me it will involve a lot of games of Ro-Sham-Bo.   I can see it now Danicky needs to go somewhere and they approach the car and one of them says, “Well, I guess we’ll have to Ro-Sam-Bo for it” and then the winner takes a victory lap while doing doughnuts and burn outs down the driveway before they head to the store.  And that boys and girls is how it’s done in this strange new world.   Now if you will excuse me I need to go see a man about a trademarking Danicky, otherwise all of these shirts and hats will surely go to waste.

Copyright 2013 R. Anderson

In the Beginning

It has been said, rightly so, that every story has a beginning.  One need only look at literature to see some opening lines that have definitely stood the test of time.  From Charles Dickens declaring in A Tale of Two Cities that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” to Herman Melville inviting the readers of Moby Dick to “Call me Ishmael,” history is full of great opening lines and beginnings of stories.  These classic openers have grabbed the reader’s attention hook line, and in Moby Dick‘s case very large sinker for generations.

While beginnings are important one cannot and should not stop there.  By stopping at the beginning line of A Tale of Two Cities one would know nothing more than that times were both good and bad. The same can be true of Moby Dick where the hunt for the white whale consumes Captain Ahab and his crew and becomes far more than just knowing to call a guy Ishmael.  So it is with all of us, while we are not classic literature we also have our origin stories and events that shape who we are and what pursuits we follow.  Don’t worry, this is not a back in the day when little Ryan was born kind of story. Although, it is safe to say if we weren’t all born, none of us would be here.  No, this is a tale of when my love of baseball took root. and much like Dickens the tale of my first baseball game experience was the both the best of times and the worst of times.

Memorial Stadium 2
Memorial Stadium in Baltimore circa 1983.
Photo by R. Anderson

As I have mentioned previously, I grew up as a Baltimore Orioles fan who bled Orange and Black pretty much from the time I can remember.  I followed football as well but baseball was also the sport that drew me in just a little bit more.  As such, I tried to catch all the games that I could on the radio and television.  I could recite lineups and stats that would make even the most avid statistician take notice.   So you can imagine my excitement when I learned that I was going to get to go to  Memorial Stadium to see the Orioles play in person in September of 1983.   Aside from the thrill of going to the game for me, 1983 was a very pivotal year for the Orioles as they were in the first year under new manager Joe Altobelli following retirement number one of Earl Weaver and spoiler alert they went on to win the World Series that year over the Philadelphia Phillies.   Of course I am getting ahead of myself  since no one new for sure in September what October would hold but needless to say there was a buzz throughout Birdland on the anticipation of what could be.

Speaking of anticipation, like most young boys gong to their first baseball game I had high hopes and higher expectations that I was going to catch a home run ball hit by Cal Ripken, Jr. and get all kinds of player autographs before the game.  I was joined in my traveling party by my mom, a family friend and his nephew.    The sky was the limit and I was ready to make the most of the ballpark experience.  We all loaded into the car and headed up to Baltimore (or Balmer if you are from there) which was about a 30 minute drive from where we lived.  Throughout the drive we excitedly talked about who we would see first and which inning we wanted to catch the home run ball in since it would be greedy to want to catch all of the home run balls that were hit our way.

Orioles Program
The 1983 Baltimore Orioles game program.

We arrived in plenty of time having pledged to arrive early and see the sights to avoid the traffic.  After walking around the Inner Harbor area it was time to head to the stadium.  It was at this moment that the realization occurred  that the tickets that would gain us entrance into the hallowed walls of Memorial Stadium were not with us in Baltimore but were in fact back in Gaithersburg which was 30 minutes away and at this time even further away in traffic.  Looking back now with 29 years or so of hindsight I want to say that I handled the news of the ticket situation with dignity and grace and the cool assurance that comes from knowing that things like this happen and that the world goes on but the key is to keep calm.  The reality of course is that 8-year-old me did not take the news well at all. And who can blame young me? I was at the cusp of seeing my heroes, of eating hot dogs until I was blue in the face and of course catching that pivotal home run and getting all of those autographs.  Now, all of that was in jeopardy and I was not pleased and was far from calm.

In the end, we made it to the game around the fifth inning, found our seats and watched the Orioles play the Milwaukee Brewers who had not yet moved to the National League at this time. (Why the Brewers did not move back to the American League instead of the Astros for 2013 is another story for another day, but is no less puzzling).  I did not catch that home run ball.  I did not get any autographs.  I did eat a hot dog and I most definitely discovered that baseball is so much better in person.  There is a buzz around ballparks that really can’t be duplicated even with the most high definition of televisions with Dolby surround sound and the freshest of popcorn smells being pumped into the media room.  To truly experience baseball is to experience it in person.

Since moving to Texas I have adopted the Astros into my stable of teams that I follow and try to attend as many games as I can each year in Minute Maid Park in addition to traveling the country and going to ballparks both small and large.  I have also since caught my share of balls despite striking out in my first attempt in 1983.   No matter the ballpark size I still get the same feeling walking in as I did as that 8-year-old boy experiencing it for the first time.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not a huge fan of crowds so the push and shove on the escalators and concourses can get tiring but once I am in my seat the magic begins all over again and it is like I am seeing it all for the first time through the eyes of younger me.  For those few hours in the stadium, I don’t worry about the stress of life or any of the outside world it is just the game and me; well and thousands of my closest friends.

So while that September night in 1983 did not go completely to plan it was indeed the best of times and the worst of times and introduced me to the white whale that I have chased across state lines ever since.  It also taught me to always check and double check that I have the tickets before leaving for the ballpark.  Now if you will excuse me I think I need to catch up on some Dickens.

 Copyright 2013 R. Anderson

The Earl of Baltimore

Growing up as a fan of the Baltimore Orioles as I did there were several faces of the franchise that helped shape one’s opinion of the O’s.  The names and faces that one most identified with was determined mainly on when one first started following the team.  For me the names most associated with the Orioles were Cal Ripken, Jr., Jim Palmer,  Rick Dempsey, Eddie Murray, and of course the leader of the bunch Manager Earl Weaver.

DSCN2961
Earl Weaver’s retired number 4 at The Baltimore Orioles Spring Training home Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.
Photo by R. Anderson

Earl Weaver recently passed away at the age of 82 while on a Fantasy Cruise for Orioles fans.  To think that the man so associated with the Orioles would spend his final moments in the presence of Orioles fans, despite having last managed the team over two decades ago, is a testament to the lasting impact that Earl Weaver had on baseball as well as the Orioles who were the only Major League Team that he ever managed.  The Earl of Baltimore, as he was known, led the Orioles to the World Series four times over 17 seasons  and won the title in 1970. His .583 winning percentage ranks fifth among managers who served 10 or more seasons in the 20th century.  Earl Weaver finished with a 1,480-1,060 record and won Manager of the Year honors three times. Earl Weaver was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.

juice
Ticket stub from the December 17, 1989 Orlando Juice versus the Gold Coast Suns Senior Professional Baseball League game where I met Earl Weaver.
Photo by R. Anderson

I was fortunate enough to meet Earl at Tinker Field in Orlando on  December 17, 1989. He had recently retired from the Orioles for a second time  and like many retirees before him had found his way to Florida.  On this particular day Earl was managing the Gold Coast Suns of the Senior Professional Baseball Association against the Orlando Juice.  For me, he could have been managing a team of preschoolers in  Tee Ball;  it didn’t matter. What mattered was I was able to walk onto the field before the game and meet one of my early heroes.  We talked, he signed an autograph and it became the first of many brushes that I would have with sports figures, and other public officials through my career as a reporter and a fan.  Despite the ensuing years and other high profile meetings I still consider standing on the third base line of Tinker Field talking baseball with Earl Weaver one of my favorite baseball memories.  To this day I have the framed autographed baseball card hanging in a place of honor in my office.  Other autographs lose their luster or stay hidden away but not Earl’s.  It sort of reminds me of the man himself who was a personality that could not hide and who had many ideas and techniques that were ahead of their time 20 years ago and have now become common place.

Earl was able to see his beloved Orioles reach the playoffs last year after a long drought.  I like to think that put a smile on the old school manager’s face. Maybe he even went out in the backyard and kicked some dirt around just to feel like he was back on the field and part of the action.  I highly recommended searching for Earl Weaver vs. Umpires videos. There were some classics that make some of the theatrics of the WWE seem pale by comparison.  But what else would one expect from an original like that? Now if you’ll excuse me I need to go find some dirt to kick Earl Weaver style.

Copyright 2013 R. Anderson