Thursday, November 19, 2015
On Dec. 19, 1980, my 22-year old brother Rob put me in his Proctor and Gamble company car, a red Ford Fairmont, and drove me (his just-turned-17 year old little brother) to Madison Square Garden for my first Bruce Springsteen concert. He had paid $50 from a scalper for the tickets, or so he told me and my dad. Years later, he'd confess it was significantly more than $50 (face value $10.50). From the first song, Prove it All Night, until the last encore, Raise Your Hand, I was mesmerized. It would be the first of close to 100 Springsteen shows for me. So, while many shrug at Springsteen's latest project, a box-set called The Ties the Bind, I practically twitch with anticipation as I wait to see the DVD of a Tempe, Arizona show. A birthday present for a 52-year old man who’s ready to feel 17 again.
Monday, November 16, 2015
Saturday, November 14, 2015
Got a lot off my chest yesterday. Appreciate those who understand. Also appreciate those who told me to suck it up, because it's tough all over. I get that. But understand one thing. I'm not at a point in my life where I can afford to do many of the things suggested, like write a book without an advance, or write a blog for "exposure." I am a professional journalist and will not operate as an amateur. I write for money only (except when I vent here). If I were a kid today who wanted to be a writer, I’d probably write for free too. Back in “my day,” I spent my first 3-4 years post college doing things like taking dictation, making coffee, taking lunch orders. But I had a salary and benefits and confidence it would lead to bigger and better things. Thankfully, it did. For a while.
Thursday, November 12, 2015
The Daily News - another place where I worked - recently laid off some of the best sportswriters in the business. This was humbling for me. I could never turn a phrase like Filip Bondy. Bill Madden has broken more stories than I've written. Wayne Coffey was my mentor as a feature writer.
I'm nothing compared to those guys.
But I'm going to share some of what I've experienced the last three years, as I've searched for a job to help me support my family, which includes two teenage sons.
Just to set the scene for you, I'll let you know that for the past four months I've worked a seasonal job at a golf club. I was the locker room attendant. I cleaned and polished golf shoes. I vacuumed the carpet several times a day. I kept the bathrooms clean, which sometimes included heavy lifting.
One day, a golfer (a guest) asked me, "Where's the locker room guy?"
"That's me," I said.
"Oh," he said. "I thought you were one of us."
Honestly, it's not as bad as it sounds. I always dressed for work in proper golf attire. It's a nice club. Perhaps I wasn't as "ethnic" as the past locker room guys he'd met. I was not offended.
I was never shy about sharing my story with golfers who wanted to strike up conversation. "Yeah, I used to be somebody..." That's the way I'd begin to tell them about my 25-year career as a sportswriter. "I worked for Sports Illustrated, the New York Daily News, was a columnist at the Star-Ledger. And for almost 14 years, I was a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine."
I wasn't trying to impress them with my story - okay, maybe a little bit - but for some reason I thought maybe one of the well-to-do members would say to me, like in the movies, "Here's my card. Call my secretary tomorrow and she'll discuss your salary and benefits package."
That didn't happen. Usually, the more caring members would give me a pat on the back and a "hang in there, bro." If I had a dollar for every "Hang in there, bro," I'd have a few dollars.
No one had a job for me, though one guy insisted I apply for a job at UPS. So, I went through the whole background check thing on their website, was asked to schedule an interview, and then was greeted with the disclaimer: "You will be on call 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and make $10 an hour."
Okay, then. Next.
Lots of people had ideas. The one I hear the most is, "Write a book." My response to that is usually, "I will write a book one day. Probably when I retire. But right now, I need a job."
My favorite suggestion was always, "You should start your own sports blog." But when I'd follow up with, "Yeah, there are a lot of those, and I'm not really sure too many of them make money..."
What I've learned in three years is that in my chosen profession, right now there are assignments, but not jobs. I've hung in there for three years, grabbing assignments with reputable outlets like SI.com and the New York Times. The reality, however, is that I'd have to write 300 stories per year for those two outlets to make half of what I used to make at ESPN The Magazine. It's impossible to write 300 stories per year. If you crushed it, you could write 150, which would mean I'd make a quarter of what I used to make. I have not crushed it. So, maybe that explains why I became the locker room guy.
The reality in sports journalism in 2015 is this: You need to be willing to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and do so with a smile on your face...and not worry about being well paid. I think I'm willing to work hard. I think I proved that in 2012, when I was asked to give up my columnist job at the Ledger and become the Yankees beat writer. It had been 17 years since I'd covered a beat. That was before the internet, boys and girls, but I gave it my best shot.
I would tell you that - not gonna be humble here - my writing was really good. I will also tell you that my other skills - live tweeting, posting random photos of things in the stadium, in the press box - were really bad. Why? Because I was an old dog trying to learn new tricks. And like I said, it had been 17 years since I'd worked a beat and I decided to focus on, ya know, working the beat.
I felt I was taking one for the team when I went on the beat. Not that I had any choice. My editor told me, flat-out, "Another writer is not walking through the doors of the Star-Ledger..."
When I finished the 2012 season, I was brain-fried. And them came Sandy, which crushed the Jersey Shore, where I have lived since 1993, so I then became a baseball writer who was also trying to help my 80-year old parents get back in their home. I think I performed admirably.
And then I got laid off.
At first, I was relieved. The beat was taking me away from my family. My son had just played his first season of varsity baseball - as a freshman - and I saw about three games. That killed me. There was no way could envision myself missing his baseball games for the rest of his high school career, or my younger son's soccer games, as he was also about to enter high school at the time.
So, I was relieved. I was also excited to look for work outside of sports writing. I got my foot in the door for an interview as editor of a college alumni magazine. Made it to the final round, but didn't get the job. "In the end we went with a candidate whose past work experience more closely meets the job description." Some version of that reply became the all-too-frequent response to subsequent interviews. I was in the running for a job as director of communications for a senior living community. I got in the door to try to manage sports marketing/communications for a major investment firm. I was a finalist for a communications position at a prep school. I went through four months of interviews for a position with a Major League Soccer team...and the same thing with one of golf's major governing bodies. Those last two rejections were especially painful because, for some god unknown reason - the guy doing the hiring told me the salary and benefits, and asked me if those conditions would be acceptable... ummm...hell yeah...only to give me bad news the next day.
Now, it's been a year since I've been able to get past a phone interview with Human Resources. I haven't met for a face to face interview with an actual human being in a year. I apply for a job a day on-line, which has only led to ridiculous amounts of viral spam in my mailbox every day.
In the end I have much to be thankful for. My wife is an amazing teacher who loves her job. My dad taught me a few things about saving money "for a rainy day." Don't get me wrong, I need a job. But because of the two things I just mentioned, I was able to quit my job as a car salesman after two months when I realized, much to my dismay, that the car business is shady, shady, shady. I have been able to watch my sons play their games, been able to make two trips to see my oldest son at college, have begun to take my younger son on school visits. Were I working 24/7/365 as a sports journalist, I would not have been able to do those things.
Money can buy a lot of things, but it can't buy back time.
But it's tough. One of my brothers, every time he hears about me not getting a job, or not getting an interview, comforts me by saying, "You're a good man, Jeff."
It means a lot, but I don't know anymore. How do you keep pushing for work - jobs that pay less than what you were making in 1990 - and continually hear you're not the right fit for the job?
I have never, ever, told anyone I was a great sportswriter. I've always felt I was lucky. Lucky to get a foot in the door. Lucky to get some chances I probably didn't deserve. Lucky to have a few editors at ESPN - in the beginning - who told me, "Jeff, you're good at explaining stuff."
Well, I guess that's why I just wrote this blog...I felt like I had some explaining to do.
Friday, March 13, 2015
I'll break format today and go longer than a buck fifty.
Who knows, I might go on forever. I've got plenty of time on my hands. I'm just going to let this post come off my fingertips, straight from my brain to you...pretty much unfiltered.
I'm going to write about Soccer in America. I will begin with a confession.
I am confused. It's my own fault, but I am confused. I think I'm confused because, even at my advanced age, when I should be smarter, I've gotten distracted by the noise.
The noise, as I call it, comes from all directions. Most call it "social media." The noise, in my opinion, can - if we allow it - give us a really distorted picture of reality. The noise has, at different times, made me feel universally beloved, and universally loathed.
Neither is the truth.
So, apply that line of thinking to Soccer in America. It sucks. It's great.
The U.S. is mediocre. The U.S. has made no improvements since 1990. The U.S. system needs to be overhauled. The U.S. system is a joke. Major League Soccer is crap. American coaches are a joke. American players are...
You get the idea. Blanket statements that cause arguments, create debate, whatever. If you allow yourself to get sucked in, the noise will take you to places that are illogical.
I guess you can have fun taking part in these debates, but if you begin to think that the noise is even half as loud as it seems, you begin to take yourself way too seriously. You become the guy with all the answers. And we all know, no one has all the answers.
It's been a struggle for me, embarrassingly. I see a guy, maybe two or three guys, who take a hard line stance on something about the American game, and I get really angry.
Here's what I know. I've been involved in the game of soccer, in one way or another, for as far back as I can remember. I grew up in a town that had a lot of kids playing soccer in the early 70s and went to a high school that won a lot of state championships in the 70s. A bunch of us went on a bus to Randall's Island one summer day to watch Pele play his first game for the Cosmos and, for a few years following that event, we'd pile into station wagons to go to Yankee Stadium and Giants Stadium to watch the Cosmos.
I remember during our summer practice sessions, we'd actually have a radio so we could listen to Cosmos games and keep up with the scores. It was a big deal. Then it was gone.
But the game wasn't gone.
When the NASL died, we focused more on college soccer. When I went to college at UNC, I went to practically every home game. I saw some really good players on Fetzer Field.
At least to my eye, they were really good.
But there was something that was really far-fetched back then, and that was the notion that the United States would ever play in a World Cup. It was a pipe dream. Seriously.
So, as all people over 50 will tell you, the years start to fly by. And a lot of stuff happened really quickly. Quickly, in my opinion, because...did I just say I'm over 50? Holy crap.
My brother, who loved soccer more than any person I'd ever met, became a college coach. But I'd soon learn he was doing more than preparing Princeton for a three-month season. On weekends, he and other coaches, were trying to push players, any players they could find who took the game seriously. Any players they could find who had some blend of skill and athleticism and competitive drive...and push them to become better.
I'm not talking about pay for play.
Truth be told, I think my brother and his contemporaries were paying to coach. God knows they were giving up time, driving all over creation, to work with players and teams.
Meantime, things changed. Quickly.
I was working as a reporter at Sports Illustrated when Paul Caligiuri scored that goal, which we read on the AP wire on a computer the size of a Smart Car. Later, we watched some sort of replay on a little TV in someone's office. And the U.S. was going to a World Cup.
Really? I'd been watching college soccer. Watching Virginia with John Harkes and Tony Meola. Watching N.C. State with Tab Ramos. Watching Rutgers with Peter Vermes.
And, damn, these guys were good. So I remember thinking, maybe they'll hold their own in the World Cup. Maybe...maybe...we're good at this game, but no one's noticed?
We didn't have noise-making mechanisms back then. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the U.S. was awarded the 1994 World Cup, which many predicted would be a colossal failure.
But I digress.
So the 1990 World Cup came and went and the U.S. had this one moment, when Vermes had a chance to tie Italy in Rome, and Italy's goalkeeper Walter Zenga stopped the shot with his ass. And then it was over. But we'd had a taste. Then it was back to college soccer and a little bit of amazement that Harkes was playing in England for Sheffield Wednesday.
But it wasn't very noisy. You know why. Onward.
I remember watching Alexi Lalas...one day playing in front of a thousand or so folks in a Princeton-Rutgers game. Rutgers had some players that, to my eye, were really amazing. Lino DiCuollo. Jeff Zaun. Steve Rammel. There was no soccer on TV, so it wasn't until the Final Four came to Rutgers that I got to see Meola and this left-footed guy with long hair named Jeff Agoos. But Santa Clara had these guys, Paul Bravo and Jeff Baicher.
I was pretty excited...but looking back, it was quiet. Really quiet. Probably a good thing.
So, the World Cup came along and it wasn't a flop. Fans flocked to stadiums, paid top dollar for tickets. And the U.S. competed in every game it played, advancing to the knockout stage before losing to Brazil on the Fourth of July.
This is when I started to hear some rumblings. Remember, this is 1994. It wasn't really noisy, yet. But I started to hear the critics coming out.
DISCLAIIMER: I don't think I had an email address until around 1996, so I was not privy to some of those North American Soccer Lists. Plus, I was a baseball beat writer for the New York Daily News and I was much more a soccer observer than a junkie.
But I started to hear some things. What? Well, the U.S. was ignoring the Latino player (Paul Gardner wrote and re-wrote this column a thousand times in the following years and continues to write it to this day). We have better players in the parks than we have on our national team. Our coaching is substandard. We only look for athletes, not skill. Kids are playing on teams at too young an age. Kids need to play small-sided games. The reason the U.S. is no good is because soccer is a rich kid's game. We don't have street soccer.
And then in 1996, I went to work for the MetroStars in Major League Soccer, a league that, in 1996, was Major in name only. But, it was hard to be totally down on it because, well, from 1984 (when the NASL folded) until 1996, we had no pro soccer.
Well, at least, we had no pro soccer that the general public knew anything about, Now, at the very least, we had some teams to follow and some games to watch. We started to get acquainted with the American player on a much higher level as we got to see players like Eddie Pope and Chris Armas. We began to wonder if, for example, Jason Kreis could score goals for the national team. Love it or hate it, MLS 1.0 was a game-changer.
But the league as a business struggled and I really thought it might just fold in and around 2003, when it seemed Phil Anschutz had to hold the whole thing together for a spell.
To me, what's happened to the game in the U.S. since 2000...a decade and a half...has been remarkable. The number of teams. The number of stadiums. The fact that I can watch games...pretty much any game I want...at any time...seriously? Amazing.
But, the noise.
The noise is both amazing and annoying. The noise can educate and it can misinform. More than anything, the noise, if you let it, will distract you and keep you from thinking clearly.
Not everything is a crisis. And not everything is an inspiration. Things happen. And then something else happens. Get caught up in the noise at your own peril. Things aren't as bad as they seem when you're in there. Or as great as they seem when you're in there.
Soccer in America. Oh yeah, that's what I set out to write about.
I can hardly believe where the game has come. When I step away from the noise, I can hardly believe what's happened with this sport in my lifetime.
That's not saying it's great. Not saying it can't get better.
But I'm not into absolutes. Not into broad strokes. Not into black and white.
Once in a while, not always, I'll try to observe in silence.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
So, as I wrote yesterday, my brother Scott became a regular attendee at Dean Smith’s practices in the early 90s. Since I worked in the Sports Information Office, I’d been privy to a few practices, and was keenly aware of Coach Smith’s meticulously choreographed sessions. I’d told Scott and he wanted to see for himself because, as he says, “There’s a connection between all sports.” What he witnessed was down-to-the-minute schedules, where student managers ran the clock, where balls were racked and quickly positioned for the next drill. The horn would sound, instructions were relayed, and it was on to the next thing. Statistics were kept in practice. Not so much points, but things like charges drawn, loose balls recovered, successful box-outs, as well as fundamental errors. My brother hasn’t taken it to that extreme in baseball, but I know he’s tried to make efficiency one of his coaching hallmarks.
Monday, February 9, 2015
The end of pro baseball was nearing for my brother Scott, so he decided he was going back to Chapel Hill to get his degree. He wrote a letter to Dean Smith. Paraphrasing, Scott wrote: “I played baseball at UNC and I’ve played pro ball for the last 10-11 years. I’m coming back to graduate and I want to be a coach someday. Can I come to watch some of your practices?” Carolina practices were closed to the public. Scott quickly got a letter back from Coach Smith, telling him, “I remember you and followed your career. Your name is going on a list. Come anytime.” Scott became a regular attendee. Years later Scott became the coach at Princeton. He never told Coach Smith, but one day there was a knock on his office door. The Heels were playing at Jadwin that night. Coach Smith was there, just checking in.