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Sunday, July 31, 2011

The unique 1,200-mile 'doubleheader' of 1996

When you're young, you can take on any task. Really, you could.

No matter the degree of difficulty, things seem easier in your 20s. Well, that's how I was feeling back in the 1990s. I could take on two assignments in one day.

Heck, I almost took on three one day, but I say almost because Lenny Dykstra was acting like a complete jerk (I'll use the nice term for it) when I went to an autograph signing session at Asbury Park's Convention Hall on November 1, 1986. I had two high school football games in Monmouth County to cover afterward and those went on as planned.

Well, on Saturday, August 3, 1996, I got to handle double duty in a far different manner that involved over 1,200 miles. Let me start this story from the top:

In the summer of 1996, I was getting very disillusioned about my time at the Ocean County Observer. I felt after 12 years of being there, my talents were being undervalued, not by my immediate bosses, but by the people above them. I don't think I was being paid well enough by the company and 15 years later, I can still say to this day the pay was deplorable.

So in the summer of '96, I started searching for a way out through Editor & Publisher. And with the acquistion of a computer at my folks' place, I spent many a late night in the family room poring over advertisements from other papers, just to see what the world was like outside of Toms River, N.J. I think I sent in about 10-12 resumes starting in June '96.

One day in late July '96, I get a phone call. It's from a guy named Dennis, who was the sports editor at a paper in Port Charlotte, Fla., a town I really had never heard of. He was impressed by what he saw on my resume and my clips and he asked me if I wanted to come down for the interview.

Well, of course, I was more than happy to do so. The problem, though, was I was in the middle of District 18 Little League season and had to figure out a time to do this. Now being the assistant sports editor then, my days off were Thursdays and Fridays. So the way it was planned, I could pick any airport to fly out of -- Newark, Atlantic City or Philadelphia -- and travel to Southwest Florida Regional Airport in Fort Myers.

In late July 1996, the Toms River East American Junior League All-Star team -- one year removed from going to the Little League World Series -- was on the verge of winning the state championship in Vineland, N.J., and going to the East Regional Tournament, which was to be held in New City, N.Y., just over the New York-New Jersey border.

The first championship game was to be held on a Wednesday. If East American had lost the first game that late afternoon, it'd have to turn around and play a second state championship game that evening. So to be on the safe side, I had booked the plane out of Philadelphia, which was closest to Vineland and did fly to Fort Myers (since no planes flew there from Atlantic City). This was just in case I'd have to take a hotel in the Vineland area that night.

Lo and behold, East American took care of business in one fell swoop and I got to write the game story that night on the Radio Shack Tandy and sent it back into the office via couplers at about 9 p.m. I decided to head home instead of stay overnight and sleep in my own bed.

Come the morning of Thursday, August 1, I headed out to Philadelphia International Airport at 7:30 a.m. and got there by 9:30 for what would be a 10:45 a.m. flight. Made the flight and ultimately got to Fort Myers in mid-afternoon.

Now I had been to Florida two times in my life, but NEVER had it been in the middle of summer. So getting off the plane and getting my bag and then taking out the rental car, I had no idea what I was about to come across.

I literally stepped outside the airport entrance to where the rental cars were located and I swear to you I thought someone had brought a sauna to me personally. Never had I been hit by such a wave of heat and humidity like I did that moment. It was about 96 degrees and the humidity felt like about 110 percent. This Jersey boy was not ... let me repeat, not prepared for this climate change.

Jumping into the car at the airport, I had very little direction to get there, other than find I-75 and head north to the exit for Port Charlotte. Then it was a turn here, a turn there, and voila, I would be at the newspaper before I knew it.

When I got there, all the town had was palm trees and heat. And not much else. I went inside the newspaper office and met Dennis for the first time. We had our initial interview and then he showed me around the paper a bit. I had to take a drug test, which was a first for me. I admitted I had been to a bar in Vineland two nights before and I might still have some sort of alcohol in my urine.

"No problem," he said. "If they tested me every day, I'd be detected for that, too."

Swell! Now I had a kindred soul who liked beer more than I did! No one ever alerted me that I failed the drug test, so all was good as far as I was concerned.

I was to start anew the next day. When I got to the paper, all I had to do was a copy editing test, a writing test and understand the computers they were working on. It was going to be a staff of myself, my future boss and two other writers who were both in and showing me around a bit. One of the stories I had to rewrite was a Texas Rangers spring training piece since the Rangers were the fixture every March there at the time.

Dennis had time to show me around Port Charlotte and immediately told me it was as small a town as you can get, run mostly by senior citizens. That may have explained some of the older people driving along US-41 and subsequent roads in golf carts.

When we got in afterward, Dennis had to sit me down and tell me the bad news. No, I didn't fail any of the tests. He was actually encouraged by what he saw. But he had to explain the salary situation.

"It would only pay about $19,000 a year," he said.

My heart sunk. This was my first experience into the cheap-ass pay of the Sunshine State. The cost of living might be cheaper, but that was a step backward from what I was doing at the Observer. I couldn't take the job and Dennis knew he'd get that answer once he told me the pay scale.

But I got to see the secret side room of the building. It was not quite the size of an airplane hangar, but it was big enough to put a basketball court there.

Yes, an actual basketball court. Me and the two writers got to shoot hoops for about 15 minutes and then we came back inside. I told Dennis if there was anything he needed help in while I was there, I'd help out and he took me up on it, actually editing a couple of stories before I left that night (after watching Michael Johnson set the world record in the 200-meter dash at the Olympics in Atlanta).

The flight back to Philadelphia would be a two-hour trip. I was supposed to leave from Fort Myers at about 1:15 p.m. and arrive back in Philly by 3:30. That would give me ample time to get on major highways and dash through New Jersey to get into New York state and to New City for a 7 p.m. start for East American's game.

That is, as long as everything was perfectly set.

This is my life -- nothing goes as planned.

The flight was delayed for about 20 minutes. Worse, I'm sitting on an airplane around shrieking children. It's bad enough I can't stand kids to the point I don't want to be on the same damned airplane as them when they get out of control. It's another when the plane's on the Tarmac and we can't move and there is no sound of the airplane jets that can drown out the little bastards.

I never had patience to be a parent and I realized there and then I knew I had made the right decision in my life. Period!

Ultimately, the plane took off and to the pilot's credit, he got us into Philly by 3:30. But we had to sit on the Tarmac again! This time, it was because we couldn't get to the dropoff point with two other planes in line to take off. So by the time we finally docked, and I was able to get out of the airport and find my car and leave Philly, it was 4:30 p.m.

I was literally up against it. Got over the Whitman Bridge without much problem and was able to get to Exit 3 on the New Jersey Turnpike for what would seemingly be a long trip up. By 6:30 p.m. I was in northern New Jersey when I decided on taking a radical approach to New York state.

I was going to take the exit for Palisades Parkway, head north and, boom, I'd be in New City. At least that was my thought. Little did I know that the Palisades was practically next to the George Washington Bridge, so it seemed like a forever trip to get to the Palisades. I made one false turn and found myself driving on Route 4 doubling back to the Garden State Parkway!

So much for easy. By the time I figured out where I was, the GSP was within sight. I wound up taking that route into New York state and ultimately found my way to New City via the directions that were my link to getting there since I had never been there before.

By the time I arrived at the complex where the tournament was held, it was the bottom of the third inning and it was a quarter to 8. Thankfully, the scorekeeper for the tournament had kept very explicit notes on the game that I was able to grab from him.

To make this long story short, East American won the game in the bottom of the seventh inning when Jason Campanalonga -- the only kid on the All-Star team who was not a member of the Little League All-Star team the year before -- crushed a game-winning solo home run for the 4-3 victory.

Got the interviews I needed and left the complex by about 9:45 p.m. Found my hotel -- the Suisse Chalet right alongside the New York Thruway in Monsey -- about 20 minutes later, checked in, and banged out a story by 11 p.m., which I sent off to my boss.

Ultimately, East American, co-managed by Greg Huyler and John Karkovice, went on to win the East Regional title and on to the Junior League World Series in Taylor, Mich., where they ended up two-and-out in the event, an event I got to cover by traveling 11 1/2 hours one way and then 11 1/2 hours back in the middle of August 1996.

However, if things had gone differently -- and the pay were greater -- I would have been in Florida for that World Series.

And that doubleheader of sorts on that first Saturday in August 1996 -- plane ride in the early afternoon and long trip across New Jersey to a ballgame that night -- would have been my last hurrah at the Observer.

Really! That would have been the last memory of something I covered, when I did a unique doubleheader that engulfed over 1,200 miles.

Don't ever try this in the business.

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