My best Father's Day memory ever? Easily the day I covered my first professional sporting event.
Was at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium to take in a Mets-Phillies game to close out the series. Wasn't expecting anything unusual on this particular day. But by the seventh inning, the usual got tossed out the window.
It was Sunday, June 18, 1989. Can still see the day as clearly as the water around Bermuda. My paper, the Ocean County Observer, had a press pass for Phillies game each year and it was there for the taking as long as the space for the next day's paper looked good and there was a significance of going.
So I asked my boss if I could go to the Phillies-Mets game since I was one of only two people to work on a Sunday. Got the OK. Now it was Father Day's that Sunday and you're thinking -- why would I abandon my dad on his day to cover a professional event?
Well don't worry about that part ... he was going to the game, too! It wasn't as if we were all going to sit together, but I did have a standing invitation to sit with my dad, mom and sister that day. My dad was working as the general manager of a hotel in Philly and his company owned a luxury box at the Vet. Now this was about the time when club/luxury boxes started coming into vogue. If you've never been in a luxury box, you get treated like a king (or queen) with people there to serve your needs and tastes.
So the rest of my family got to be treated like royalty in this box, and me, I got to sit in an open press box on a warm day.
And so we all jumped into the family car and took off from Toms River to Philly for the day. We got there about 11:45 that morning. Dad parked the car and he, mom and sis went one way, and I went another, schlepping my stuff with me to the direction of the press box to find where I was going to be that day.
Once I got there and found my designated seat, I just winged it. They were serving lunch, so I had a salad and, if memory serves me, meatloaf was being served. Darn, I wish I hadn't thought about that -- my mouth's watering.
I was in the middle of my lunch when a good-looking man in a blazer came by and asked me if any of the seats were taken. Well since I was the only one rsitting at the table, I said no problem. We made conversation immediately and I told him I was covering my first professional sporting event. Then I took a closer look at the man I was talking to.
It was New York Mets television broadcaster Steve Zabriskie. I had seen him and heard him so many times over the years, I just recognized him via voice and face. I also learned that as a fellow journalist -- even at 22 -- you treat everyone in the business with respect, but not act like a fan in some way. If you've gotten to know someone well enough, and they seem like a genuine human being (pure example of this, Tampa Bay Rays broadcaster and one-day Hall of Famer Dewayne Staats), then you can say you're a huge fan of their work.
We were chatting for at least five to 10 minutes. We didn't talk much about baseball, though. Seems Steve had some sort of a deal going with real estate, something having to do with land or a timeshare. And, genuinely, I wanted to hear his take on what he was doing with the land/timeshare. It sounded quite interesting, but I'll be honest, it was probably about 3 minutes into his take and his purpose for whatever land it was he was a part of that I started letting my mind wander. But I still maintained my friendliness and he kept on talking. Finally, he had to leave to go do his broadcast, but we exchanged handshakes and he was off to his booth and I was near finished with my lunch.
Getting things handed to you is something I've never been used to before, but in the press box, you pretty much have communications people doing everything for you. Your job is to witness what's going on, make notes and go from there.
The Phillies started a pitcher named Ken Howell and the Mets, who had won 10 of their last 16 games, went down in the top of the first. In the bottom of the first, the Phillies were going to make sure that Ron Darling's outing was a short and not-so-sweet one. Tommy Herr singled with one out and moved to second on a wild pitch. Then Darling couldn't find the plate -- he walked Von Hayes, John Kruk and Juan Samuel to make it 1-0.
It reminded me of the time my friend Steve and I went to a Mets-Phillies game in April 1984 at Shea Stadium when the Mets couldn't hold the lead and the Phils rallied as Dick Tidrow threw something like 12 straight balls before he found the strike zone, then got a standing ovation from the Mets fans.
To make matters worse for Darling, Curt Ford doubled off the wall to score two more runs and the fourth run of the first inning came when Ricky Jordan's sacrifice fly to Lenny Dykstra scored Samuel.
That last bit of information would serve for the coincidence of the afternoon, though I certainly didn't know it after one inning.
The Mets answered in the top of the second inning when Mookie Wilson and Mackey Sasser, playing catcher on this day with no sign at that particular time of having trouble of throwing balls back to pitchers, delivered back-to-back doubles. The Phillies got the run back when Kruk tripled home Herr. Yeah, that John Kruk, who despite his size still had 34 triples in his career.
The Phillies had gotten to Darling, who lasted all of two innings before Davey Johnson thought it was a good idea to go with someone else. Howell was in cruise control.
And as I read through the sheets that I had in front of me, looking at the Phillies program I obtained when I came in and was keeping score of the game, my mind wandered to how the rest of my family was doing upstairs in their luxury box. I had an open invite, but I couldn't go because I didn't want to do something that would force Phillies management to take away our press pass and I'd be the person to blame for it.
I'm sure they had a good time and I know they did since mom told me they did later on. Oh, well. Such is the life of a working journalist.
A notorious fastball hitter, Howard Johnson was getting nothing but fastballs from Howell. Finally, he got a hold of one and deposited it over the right-field fence for his 16th home run of the season in the third inning. It was 5-2, and it stayed that way until the sixth when Dave Magadan teed off for a solo home run, cutting the lead to two runs.
Now there's some kind of interest here. In the top of the seventh, the Mets made things even more interesting when Mookie and Mackey singled and Darryl Strawberry's forceout scored Wilson to make it 5-4. Then something unsual took place. At the top of the lineup, Barry Lyons was being put into the game to pinch-hit for Dykstra, who was 1-for-3, though he had struck out his previous at-bat. Lyons flied out to end the inning, and I'm thinking, "Why are they pinch-hitting for Dykstra? He offered a much better chance of doing something than Barry Lyons."
I was not yet putting 2 and 2 together. Nothing out of the ordinary. But after the Phillies went out in the bottom of the seventh inning, an announcement came over the PA in the press box from the communications head before the top of the eighth was played.
"The Philadelphia Phillies have traded Steve Bedrosian to the San Francisco Giants for pitchers Terry Mulholland and Dennis Cook and third baseman-outfielder Charlie Hayes."
Uh-oh. So much for a simple debut as a professional sports writer. I had taken out one of our handy-dandy Radio Shack Tandy machines with me to the game and started writing about the trade as part of the game story. This was big news at that particular moment -- the Phillies had sent their 1987 Cy Young Award-winning reliever away to get young and to look toward the future while helping the Giants in their conquest of the National League championship, which they would gain that year.
Mulholland? The only thing I knew about the lefty starter was his blooper moment as a Giants pitcher in 1986 at Shea Stadium when he snagged a Keith Hernandez groundball, couldn't get the darned thing out of his glove, then had to toss the entire glove with ball in it to first baseman Bob Brenley for the out. It's a classic.
Hayes and Cook? Not a clue. This was a move toward making something happen in the 1990s. That was for sure.
The Mets, meanwhile, tied things up in the top of the eighth when reliever Jeff Parrett uncorked a wild pitch to score Johnson. The rally was complete. Now they needed to take the game.
In the top of the ninth, though, Lee Mazzilli, Mookie and Jeff McKnight -- three guys who wouldn't be with the Mets at the start of the 1990 season -- went down in order against Parrett. Leading off for the Phillies would be Von Hayes, who had gotten major hype and coverage just days earlier after signing -- hold on to your seats for this one -- a $2-million-a-year extension for the next two seasons that would kick in starting in 1990!
Hey, kids, a $2 million a year contract was HUGE news back in 1989. In this game, he was struggling, going 0-for-3.
But on a 1-2 slider from Randy Myers, Hayes teed off and deposited it over the fence for the game-winning home run. And moments after the Phillies had finished celebrating at home plate and most of the players had cleared the field, another announcement came over the press box PA.
"Attention media members, the Phillies will be holding a press conference to discuss the trade made earlier."
OK, so we're going downstairs to hear Lee Thomas, the Phillies' general manager, talk about the trade, one that had been anticipated all weekend long, but finally was being pulled off on this Father's Day. Bedrosian was gone, but Phillies officials had gotten quotes from him before he left. It was left for me and the rest of us to quote any Phillies players, Thomas and manager Nick Leyva.
Then the bombshell came moments after us media folks got to the Phillies clubhouse. Thomas was holding court and talked about the trade with the Giants and the particulars. Then this little ditty came:
"We have swung a deal with the Mets and have traded Juan Samuel for outfielder Lenny Dykstra and pitcher Roger McDowell."
Whoa! This stopped being just a fun first pro sports assignemnt and started to become seriously surreal. Two main pieces of the Mets' 1986 championship team were gone, just like that. And now, they were having to pack their things and head over across the way to the other clubhouse.
The Mets, little did we know, were in the middle of dismantling the team that had won two NL East titles and a World Series. Getting Samuel in the deal, I figured, would start them on the right path.
"I gained about 15 games in the standings," Samuel joked. "It's definitely a good move for myself and hopefully, it will be a good move for both sides if it works out."
Turns out, it was only the beginning of a long, winding road of misery for the Mets. Samuel hit .228 with three home runs and 28 RBI in his time in Flushing and was let go after the season.
While the Mets and Samuel were about to traipse down the road to Hell, the Phillies were changing their entire atmosphere, their outlook of losing ball which they were suffering through for the previous two seasons. It started the month earlier when they obtained Kruk from the San Diego Padres and in between, the venerable Mike Schmidt had retired with an emotional press conference on Memorial Day.
With various moves that were taking place, I went to Kruk after the game and congratulated him.
"With all the moves the Phillies are making and Schmidty's retirement, you have seniority on this team now," I joked.
"Yeah, I know," Kruk answered. "It's kinda hard to know who your teammates are."
In gaining Dykstra, the Phillies were getting an ultra-energy guy that they were lacking. You could see it in the makeup of the team. They had good players on their roster like Hayes and Kruk, but they didn't have the get-up-and-go guy until Dykstra came over. And with the trade, the Mets had solved their center field dilemma with Dykstra and Wilson platooning out there for years.
Dykstra had made his way to the Phillies clubhouse and all us media types moved in to get quotes from "Nails," the same guy who three years earlier had blown off interview opportunities days after the World Series title when he was in Asbury Park's Convention Hall to sign autographs for a baseball memorabilia show. Yeah I was one of those blown off by Lenny and his reps.
"I've been here (with the Mets) five years and I never did have the chance to play every day," Dykstra said. "I always had to walk into the clubhouse, look at the lineup and it was frustrating for me. Now I can walk into the clubhouse and do what I have to do and not worry about who was pitching or what the situation is."
He also added, "Every team I've ever been on in my life has won. I don't know what it's like to lose. I'll have to tell (his new teammates) I expect to win."
Needless to say, Dykstra saw enough losing for a few years, and he certainly didn't help himself with a car accident in 1991 that ended that season and a broken thumb the next year against Greg Maddux on Opening Day that sidetracked him again. Then came 1993, and I don't have to tell you what happened that year, especially if you're a proud Phillies fan.
As for McDowell, he was in the clubhouse meeting his new teammates. As a Mets reliever, he already had a reputation for being a prankster, his most notable prank being his setting of hotfoots on his teammates. I watched him shake Kruk's hand.
"You set one hotfoot on me, I will kick your ass!" Kruk said smiling as McDowell started to smile back.
Lost in the emotion and the trades was Hayes' game-winning home run. By the time I reached Von Hayes, he was alone, finishing up getting dressed. You could see he was exhausted. But he was at least smiling and was gracious enough to let me ask him questions.
After signing his extension, Hayes admitted to me that he had very little sleep and was being pulled in different directions by the club and certainly by the media and it was affecting his performance on the field at that particular point.
"Since the day I signed, I've been doing physicals and drawing blood and playing games until 1:30 and 2 o'clock in the morning," he said. "I was just struggling the last few days to get any kind of bat speed. I felt weak. But I had a good night's sleep (the night before) and I came into today's game with a better feeling."
Whether he was just venting or BSing me, I took it all down, letting those read our paper decide for themselves whether he was just making excuses for his play after signing such a high-money deal. I found Von Hayes to be a very casual and friendly gentleman. He had injuries he had to deal with the next three years before he finally retired at 34 in 1992.
I don't know what Von Hayes is doing with his life these days, but I thank him for being gracious to a 22-year-old covering his first pro event.
Meanwhile, I had one phone call to make. It was back upstairs to the press box and a pay phone in the back of it (yeah, it was again THAT time period). I called up Dave, the assistant sports editor and the person I worked for on Sunday night to tell him what was going on. I knew that I had too much for one huge story -- the game, the trade, the interviews after that -- and needed to do two stories. Thankfully, we had the room for two.
And thankfully, my parents and sister had been waiting patiently for me downstairs. They knew this was a working day, but they had heard about the trades as well, so they knew I was going to be in the clubhouses for a little while.
We got back into the car, drove back into Jersey and I went from my house to the Observer where I uploaded the part of the trade story that I had started on that handy-dandy Tandy, then wrote the rest of that story along with the game story.
Since that afternoon, I have been fortunate enough to cover two more Phillies games that summer, a couple of more the next year and go on to cover pro and college sports events, including the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at the Vet in 1996 and Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville in 2005.
But I'm pretty sure there aren't too many professionals in my business who can say their first day as a pro sports writer came when two franchises decided to wheel and deal and change the face of their sport for the next few years.
And on Father's Day, too. Not a bad package deal.