|Remember when Christopher took all the Ledgers out of the box?|
I told the bureau chief I was going to accept the offer. And then I asked him when he would want me to start. I still had about two months left before graduation.
My thinking was that maybe I'd take a month off after college to travel, have some fun, blow off steam...
"How about Thursday?" was the answer. And so it began, my career in journalism. Working nights in the A.P. bureau in Raleigh, typing in the data for the North Carolina hog markets, taking dictation from Division III Sports Information Directors, changing ribbons on what we called "printers."
Other duties included making runs to Char-Grill for the staff, filing papers, making sure the coffee was fresh and hot.
Basically, I learned to take a punch.
Fast forward 27 years to last Wednesday morning around 9 a.m. My home phone rings and the caller ID says "Newark." On the other end of the line is my boss, Kevin Whitmer, the editor of the Star-Ledger. I don't want to misquote Kevin here, but he said something like, "This is not the type of phone call I enjoy making...you need to come to Human Resources tonight at 5:45 and there's a story on NJ.com that will shed some light..."
"I'm losing my job?" I asked.
"Legally, I'm not allowed to tell you anything more," Kevin said. "Read NJ.com."
And then, I addressed my boss in a way I'd never address a boss. "See ya later, brother," I said.
I read the NJ.com story about 34 layoffs at the Star-Ledger, including 18 in the newsroom.
I texted my wife, a schoolteacher and typed, "I just got laid off."
Around 5:30 p.m. that night, after I was told "legally" that I wasn't supposed to be in the newsroom, I was ushered into the HR office where I got my packet. Three weeks severance plus the two of weeks vacation I'd never used.
And just like that, for the first time since I walked through the doors of the A.P. office in Raleigh, I was an unemployed American.
A TALENT ISSUE
It's not the first time I've lost a job. I accepted the baseball columnist job at the Ledger because in 2011, ESPN The Magazine did not pick up my contract after I'd worked for them for 13 years, 10 months. They had offered me a new three-year deal after the 2010 World Cup, but pulled it off the table about 10 days later and changed it to a one-year contract with a bleak outlook for the future.
When I asked if I could discuss a reduced contract with more security in terms of years, I was told, "It's not really a money issue. It's a talent issue."
What do you say to that?
I said nothing, partly because I knew I was about to cry.
I loved writing at the Magazine so much because I was so invested in the product. John Papanek, the first Editor in Chief of The Mag, had hired me in December of 1997, three months before it was launched. I started as an editor and slowly moved into a position as a senior writer. It was the job I had always dreamed of having, dating back to college. And now it was gone.
"A talent issue," was the reason. So funny, because I'd never considered myself "talented." One of the things I loved about The Mag was that, for years, the people in charge seemed to like me even though I wasn't talented. I was a sports writer. I liked writing about sports. I didn't quote French authors or feel the need to use a thesaurus (or send my readers to dictionary.com).
That's why The Mag was heaven for me, a self-described hack.
Now what was I going to do?
Thankfully, the Ledger, the paper I grew up reading, was there for me. Even though it had been 16 years since I'd written for a daily, they hired me to be their baseball columnist.
The day of my first column, with my mug shot on Page One, I joked to people that, like Christopher Moltisanti on the Sopranos, I drove to a box on Bloomfield Ave., put four quarters in the slot and took every copy. It wasn't true, but that's how good it felt.
I cannot pretend that I was a good or even a mediocre columnist for the Ledger. I was thoroughly challenged by the deadlines.
I often questioned myself. I tried my best, but I'd be lying if I said the pressure of producing day after day didn't rattle me. It did.
And then came last August, when our skillful, hard-working Yankee beat writer Marc Carig was offered a great job at Newsday.
MARCHING TO THE BEAT
The Ledger's financial issues were very public at that point, so I knew what was going to happen, and it did. I was told "another writer is not walking through the door" and so I was no longer a columnist, I was the Yankee beat writer.
I was not happy. I have two teenage sons who like having a dad to make them breakfast in the morning. I have a wife who works full-time.
When I was the columnist, I'd often walk through the door after 2 a.m. after covering a game in the Bronx or Flushing. But at least I'd be home. A baseball beat writer spends about 150-170 nights per year in a hotel room between the months of February and October.
Had the Ledger been looking for a Yankee beat writer when I was on my way out at ESPN The Magazine, I would not have even filled out an application. I wouldn't have done that to my family.
But now, I knew I had no choice but to accept the job-switch because the alternative was to be unemployed. So I went on the beat and, really, the rest is a blur.
I don't remember much of what I wrote in August, September and October. I just know I wrote a lot. I didn't miss any deadlines. That's the good thing.
But when it comes to remembering anything I typed, I can come up with only one lede that stayed with me.
Here it is. From the Yankees-A's game on September 22.
NEW YORK — In the five hours and 43 minutes it took to play the game, it seemed day turned into night, summer turned into fall, and 36 Yankees turned into one.
What's funny is I didn't realize that summer officially did turn into fall that day.
It was pure luck.
Fittingly, it wasn't talent that came up with those words. It was luck.
BETTER TO BE LUCKY
And I've been lucky. Lucky to go nearly three decades without ever having to beg for work. Lucky to have done exactly what I set out to do when I enrolled in Journalism School as a college junior back in the Fall of 1984. Lucky to have worked at Sports Illustrated, The New York Daily News, ESPN The Magazine and the Star-Ledger.
And lucky to have learned how to take a punch at the A.P.
As I walked into the streets of Newark, packet in hand, I did not feel any anger or sadness. I'm not sure what I felt, probably because I'd never felt unemployment before.
I realize I'm not alone. So many friends from my past have reached out and told me how they handled unemployment. By taking on projects around the house. By committing to a crazy workout routine. By cooking dinner for the family every night.
I've also heard from some talented (and I don't just throw that word around) writers who are also looking for work. It's so humbling. These are hard times in the only business I've ever known.
It's too early to say what I'm going to do. It's only been a week.
Today, if someone were to say, "How about Thursday?" I don't know what I'd do.