It was 1993 and I was working for the New York Daily News.
Part of the drill each day was a phone call from our sports editor Barry Werner, who would always greet you with the same two-word question. "What's doin'?" Every day. Same two words.
My answer was usually one word, "Same." And then we'd begin to talk ideas. Normally those ideas pertained to New York baseball, which was my beat, but Barry was definitely not averse to big ideas. He actually liked to think outside the box and I think he knew I was a captive audience.
So after "What's doin'?" and "Same" were exchanged, Barry said, "How would you like to go to Japan?" My answer was quick. "I'd love to." Seriously, it's funny to say after the last 10 years have taken me all over the world, but in '93 I'd not traveled much, so the thought of a Far East adventure was very appealing. The thought of getting away from the Yankees and Mets for a week was even more appealing. Barry explained that he wanted a series of stories on baseball in Japan that would include stories on a couple of Yankees (Mel Hall and Jesse Barfield) who were playing over there. Barry said that he'd offered the idea to a more senior member of the staff, but when that guy said he'd go only if he got to fly a certain airline (for frequent flier miles) and stay at a certain hotel (for points), Barry figured it was time to call Bradley.
"If you can stay on budget, be my guest," Barry said. I can't remember what the budget was, but it wasn't a lot. He then gave me the address of Japan Airlines in the city and the name of their public relations director. I swung by the JAL office, met with the guy and things were in the works. Turns out the PR guy was a baseball fan and he immediately told me he could get me an upgrade to business class. He gave me a list of reasonably priced hotels and a book on everything an American would need to know when traveling to Japan.
But it turned out the most important thing he gave me was a number to the Foreign Press office in Tokyo. Didn't realize it at the time, but without that number I'd have been lost.
You'll soon see why.
NOBODY ON, NOBODY OUT
I was 100-percent solo on this trip.
In subsequent years, as more and more of my colleagues have made their way to Japan as part of American groups going over to cover games between Major League teams and Japanese teams, I've often scoffed at them and told my tale of 10 days in Japan on my own.
My hotel room in Tokyo was slightly bigger than a twin bed. The bathroom was no bigger than a phone booth. The sink was inside the shower. The toilet was just outside. I never figured out how to take a shower without completely flooding the place.
The only people I could find in Tokyo with any English speaking skills were school kids. They could say a few words. Adults basically knew nothing.
In and around Tokyo, at least I could read street signs because they were written out phonetically in our alphabet. But about 20 miles outside Tokyo, there were no phonetics.
I think it was on Day 2 that I looked down at my tip sheet and saw the number of the Foreign Press office and decided to dial it up. When I started speaking in English, there was dead silence for a few seconds and then there was a voice saying, "Can I help you?"
NO STRINGS ATTACHED
We complain a lot (don't we?) about all the things that keep us wired 24-hours a day. The internet and email and Facebook and Twitter and TXT messaging.
In '93, we had none of that. And I wish we did.
Because I don't remember his name. And I really don't remember what he looked like. All I remember is he made my trip to Japan work.
I called him "Sonny."
I called him "Sonny" because when we met at his office and he asked where I was from, I told him "New Jersey" and he immediately told me, "I'm a big Bruce Springsteen fan."
But that wasn't it. He told me how, in his early 30s, he felt such a connection to Springsteen's lyrics. That he was just a guy who got up every morning and went to work each day.
He was a die-hard.
And when I asked him what his favorite Springsteen song was, he said, "Racing in the Street," which happens to be my favorite all-time song (live, of course). So I began to call him "Sonny," as in "Me and my partner Sonny." He loved the name, and he called me "Boss."
Sonny loved Racing for the same reasons I love it. Because it speaks to man's need to have something in his life that makes him feel alive. Even in times when everything else around you seems wrong, there's got to be one thing that feels right. He was married with kids. I was engaged and getting ready to begin the next phase of my life. We shared a number of meals together, and a few Kirins. He wasn't much of a baseball fan, and that didn't really matter.
Sonny had a handful of friends who could speak English and he made sure I met them all during my stay. He made sure whenever I went to a ballpark I had "an appointment." In Japan, you just don't show up at the ballpark and expect to get your interviews. "You need an appointment, Boss." And so Sonny would make all the necessary phone calls. Send all the faxes.
And my trip was great. I wrote a series for the Daily News on baseball in Japan and it was picked up by a number of papers across the country. In my years at the News, it's probably the work of which I am most proud. Without Sonny, I'd have had no chance.
I have no way of figuring out his name. I've never been much of a hoarder. I throw out old notebooks. Got rid of my clip files years ago. I wouldn't know where to begin.
Friends come in so many different forms. There are lifelong friends and fair weather friends and friends of convenience. But Sonny, he really had no reason to be my friend.
Yet for those 10 days in Tokyo, I can't imagine I've ever had a better friend.
And I can't stop thinking about him.
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