|LIFE AS A LOSER #98: "HELLO, NEWMAN."|
|By Will Leitch|
I heard the best rumor the other day.
When asked, I’ve usually told people that the best job I ever had was working at the Cinema 1-2-3 in Mattoon, Illinois, at the age of 16. Technically, that’s true. I was fortunate enough to spend my senior year of high school in the cultural epicenter of all things Mattoon, wearing a tie, getting into movies free, dating an older girl who was my boss, getting to make out in the projection booth. Tough to beat that.
But for one month, in April 1999, I was king.
When I started at The Sporting News in May 1998, I was just a copy boy, logging agate text and editing box scores. That was fine with me. After the nightmarish year in Los Angeles, I was just pleased to be in the Midwest, where everything was calmer and quieter. But, as I tend to do, I became a little restless, and, buoyed by confidence gained after starting to write a movie column for a bi-weekly Website with three readers that later became Ironminds, I decided my new spot at TSN would be … Writer Man.
I had this whole plan. Typically at TSN, each night during the baseball season, two people were in charge of the MLB section of the site. One person would take the National League, one person would take the American League, and they would collaborate to come up with the site’s lead story packages, edit game recaps, write headlines and pretty much make the baseball page look all schnazzy. This was cool in two ways. One, we could come up with obscure, inside, NY Post-esque joke headlines for otherwise bland regular-season games (my personal favorite: After Mark McGwire hit his 62nd homer off Cubs righthander Steve Trachsel, I labeled a game sidebar, “Blood on the Trachs”); second, and most important, we essentially sat around and watched baseball games on satellite all night. This is not a bad way to spend an evening, and when you’re being paid for it, you’re just stealing cash.
But that wasn’t enough for Writer Man. I did the math on it, and two people was one too many for such a simple job. So I came up with a new concept: A column called the Daily Closer. It was very simple. One person would take both leagues and construct the lead story package, and the other wrote a free-form pseudo-literary, comic rundown of all the evening’s games. I sold it as a fantasy baseball aide; anyone who had a Rotisserie baseball team could check and see how well their players had done that evening, sent directly to their inbox, easily accessible when they came into work the next day. But that was a just a ruse, attempting to dupe the higher-ups into thinking there was some practical usage for the column.
It was really just an excuse for me who, of course, would be writing the column five times a week; hell, it was my idea to randomly pontificate about anything that happened to cross my mind. Dammit, I was an artist. I deserved to be heard. Sure, your average baseball fan can read about so-and-so’s ERA or on-base percentage anywhere; I wanted to appeal to the diamond aficionado who was also into Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Dave Eggers. One night, we’ll compare Braves outfielder to Grandma Moses; another, we’ll talk about how Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos runs his business in a fashion almost frighteningly similar to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Maybe we’ll compare Mets utilityman Joe McEwing to Timothy Leary. Maybe we’ll do an ode to a high-school teacher who never believed in us, with a passing reference to Mo Vaughn just to save face. It doesn’t matter! It was the David Sedaris of sports columns; autobiographical farcical musings with occasional stats thrown in to make sure the checks don’t bounce. It was me trying to carve out my niche, my minuscule place in the sports universe, and I was determined to make it work. And I was willing to kiss some ass to do it.
We had a typical managerial structure at TSN. Three middle managers, all allies in my quest. They saw me as the night-staff guy who made the trains run on time; always gets his work done, doesn’t complain, has pictures of Woody Allen all around his desk. Somewhat peculiar, but we’ll indulge him. This idea is crazy … but it might just be crazy enough to work!
And then there was Dan. Dan was the bigwig of our site, a former baseball beat reporter who, as was the craze at the time, had morphed into an IPO-crazed monster, a Napoleon of online sports. He had decided the world of online sports journalism was his Romper Room, and he would take it all over. In Los Angeles, he might have fit right in, but in St. Louis, he was a middle-aged balding wanna-be yuppie with a vacant blond trophy wife and a sports car that he made sure everyone within a 10-mile radius witnessed and appreciated. (I think he wore sunglasses to bed.) He was a complete phony, a sad pathetic twerp who had somehow been handed the keys to the online castle by old-school TSN staffers who couldn’t figure out how to get the VCR to stop blinking 12:00, let alone figure out how to use the Internet. Remember Office Space, Gary Cole’s character? That’s him. He was the type of guy who would come over to your desk and say, “So, Will, you gotta think outside the box here,” and actually believe what he was saying to be some sort of corporate wisdom. He was hated by everyone, including, I can only assume, his wife.
Dan would be tough, because I suspect the biggest books he’d ever read were written by Rick Pitino and Tony Robbins. Sensing this, I had one of the middle managers, the one whose eye I’d always suspected he fancied, pitch him on the idea. He might have been watching Dr. Phil at the time, or reading Bret Easton Ellis as a lifestyle textbook, I’m not sure which, because at the time he agreed, saying, “it will promote our long term growth potential,” or something equally meaningless.
And so we were off. I came in at 4 p.m., made a few notes, watched six hours of baseball, made a few more notes, and that shat it all out in a 3,000-word missive each night, on topics varying from my cat to my high-school girlfriend to my family’s propensity to overcook their steaks. It was my entire job. Watch baseball, make jokes, talk about myself, tossing in a sporadic reference to Orel Hershiser (who, after all, married a Mattoon girl) for good measure. It was all I did. It was glorious. I imagined it was kind of like what being a porn star felt like, minus the mullets. Sitting in a chair, flipping from game to game, indulging whatever narrative whims that might strike me? What more could a 23-year-old ask out of life?
Did the column catch on? I have no idea. Sure, the page views grew each night, but that was to be expected. But I didn’t care. This was about changing the world! This was about my vision!
My friend Matt came to me about two weeks after the column launched.
“Dan came to my desk last night. He said, ‘Yeahhhhhh … that Daily Closer column … it’s awfully long, isn’t it? We’re gonna go ahead and have to do something about that.’ Um, Will, that could be bad.”
I was undaunted, ignoring such warning signs. My column was becoming a hit. I could feel it. Besides, TSN readers just had to know about how I was a backup catcher in high school and once scored a run at Busch Stadium. Me! Me! Me me me!
I had a wedding to go to at the beginning of May. I was to pack on my first day off a three-day stretch and then leave the next morning. At 11 p.m., I received a call from friend and co-worker Brian.
“Yeah, Will, listen, I thought you should know: Dan ended your column tonight. No more Daily Closer, starting now. I kinda felt you should be told about it, since, um, it’s yours.”
Already drunk it was, after all, a Wednesday night I stormed into work, which Dan had already left. I sat at my desk and pounded out a 2,000-word tome comparing the Montreal Expos and my cousin’s drug habits, then went home, ready for a fight the next day. Nobody was taking my column away from me. I would not bow down to The Man.
The next morning, Dan was not in the office, and the middle managers were all wearing morose faces. “Will, he just doesn’t want to run it anymore. I’m sorry.” I pleaded and screamed and threw papers in the air, but no avail. Dan didn’t show up in the office for three more days, and I didn’t either. He had axed my column, my baby, my reason for being, and I never spoke a word with him about it.
Two months later, still avoiding my desk, Dan decided to leave TSN to take a job running a hot new Web startup, one that would revolutionize the very way we experience sports! I didn’t hear from him until a month later, when he called the general office phone, which I answered.
“Sporting News. This is Will.”
“Hey, is this Will?”
“Hey, man, it’s Dan. They running the Closer again? I figured you’d have them running that again as soon as I left. I bet you were pretty pissed about that, weren’t you? Heh!”
So about that rumor I was referring to. A friend of a friend told me yesterday that he’d heard that Dan, having run his Web startup into the ground and finding subsequent employment difficult to come by, had last been spotted living with his parents and working at a local Office Depot. He gets to wear the red vest and everything. He’s still planning on launching another site, you know, when the market clears shakes itself out. It’s gotta happen, you know. It has to. You know?
Life has been tough, riding out this ongoing recession and struggling to find a place that will appreciate, well, anything that doesn’t provide an immediate return on investment. But some days, like yesterday, this column to the contrary, everything comes up Leitch.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to call my bank to make sure the check for my phone bill didn’t bounce.