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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Three stories, one day -- well, that's what I was hoping to do!

When you're almost 20 years old, you think you're 10 foot tall and bulletproof.

And it's OK, too. We're really only young once. Enjoy your youth while you have it.

So back in the days when we had five- or six-page sports sections, I was open to write anything as long as I could deliver the story in a timely fashion and could find relative reason to have that story in the paper.

My boss at the Observer wanted me to cover not one, but TWO football games on Saturday, November 1, 1986. He had me covering these games far from the office, too. I had the rare 3 p.m. start to a Saturday afternoon game between host Middletown South and Southern Regional, then I had to shuffle off to Shore Regional in West Long Branch to cover the game between Shore, going through one of its best seasons, and Manchester, having a decent year under second-year mentor Bob Hunt, and who a month earlier I had seen upset Freehold Boro and Temple-bound quarterback Anthony Richardson at Freehold.

But two football games weren't going to be enough for my insatiable appetite. Nooooooo! I wanted to do more and had the perfect place to go for a third assignment. It was at Asbury Park's Convention Hall that baseball card afficianado Ed Walsh was hosting. At that time, Asbury Park was on an upswing (I know this because my dad was working at the famous Berkeley-Carteret Hotel across the way from the Hall) and having these big-time card shows was enhancing the reputation.

But this was no ordinary card show with a Hall of Famer.

No, this time around, the card show "star" of the day was a current player ... a player who just happened to have won a World Series title five days earlier sharing center field duties with Mookie Wilson of the champion New York Mets. Somehow, Ed Walsh was able to get Lenny Dykstra to come down and sign autographs. Got in touch with Ed via phone (yes, this was in the era loooong before email) and he saw no problem with me stopping in Asbury Park at around 1 p.m. My goal was to see if I can ween my way through the crowd onto the stage to talk with the Mets' 23-year-old star in the making. Ed didn't seem against the idea. I had been in Asbury Park in August when the great Hank Aaron and Mets pitching great Jerry Koosman were in town to sign autographs and he was able to grant me interviews while they were signing cards.

Naive me figured Hank, Jerry and Lenny were the same baseball kinda guys who were generous with their times and amiable with everyone. Boy was I going to find out differently.

Now how this was all going to work out perfectly where I would be at three places, write three stories and give dictation to our various writers in the office three times was going to need choreography that even Toni Basil or Paula Abdul couldn't quite assemble. Quite honestly, I wasn't sure how I was going to pull this off.

So "winging it" was going to be the operative term of the day. I left my house in Toms River around 11:45 that morning to head to Asbury Park first. The autograph show started at noon, so I figured I'd see a nice-sized crowd there. As I crossed into Asbury Park about 50 minutes later and as I got closer toward the Shore line and the parking lot right by Convention Hall, something just gave me the impression that this was going to be no ordinary day here.

There were lots and lots and lots and lots of cars. World Series championships are going to give it away each and every time. I mean everybody wanted to be at Convention Hall to meet a World Champion New York Mets player. Most everyone might have hoped for Carter or Hernandez or Strawberry or Gooden or even Mookie.

But Lenny Dykstra? Yeah, he was a part-time outfielder but he came up big in a number of spots that fall with the Mets, most memorably his ninth-inning home run off Astros closer Dave Smith to give the Mets a come-from-behind victory over Houston at Shea Stadium in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.

I walked into Convention Hall and the line of those who were there for Dykstra to sign everything from baseball bats to pictures to autograph books seemed endless! I knew I needed to see my man Ed and see what the deal was going to be to even have a chance to ask his star attraction at least two or three questions, let alone sit next to him for a half hour.

I can see that blank "I'm not sure exactly what to tell you" look on Walsh's face when I approached him as to what he thought would be my best plan of attack. Just looking at the situation, you can see the star attraction was just a bit busy at the moment. And quite honestly, I wasn't really all that jazzed up to find out if Dykstra could multi-task all that well, signing autographs and talking to me as I threw questions out at him.

"It might be best if you came back tomorrow," was all Ed was going to tell me. "I don't really know what to tell you." 

Ed was being very honest on this day. I was right on the stage probably no more than about 20 feet from Dykstra. I pretty much had made my decision that this was not going to happen today -- the interview and the story. I could have improvised and interviewed someone who had made the trip from Ocean County to meet the man and have him sign whatever they had for him to sign. But somewhere along the way, the light bulb went on and suddenly I wasn't so interested in overworking myself on this day. After all, even though this was a very big story that a New York Mets player had come to the Jersey Shore for an autograph show at a high-profile place like Convention Hall, it wasn't on Ocean County turf.

Sounds like a copout, but truth it was.

At about that same moment, I saw Joe Zedalis, who was there to do a story for the Asbury Park Press. He was looking at Dykstra from the same angle as I was. So I asked him how long he had been there and what has he seen or heard from the man he was there to do a feature story on.

"He's been acting like a complete ass," Joe said, indicating that he was going to have to pursue his story from a totally different angle since getting an interview with Dykstra seemed as reachable as getting to the South Pole in an hour. "He just looks like he doesn't want to be there."

I was there a lesser amount of time, yet I got that impression as well. Though he was signing autographs and being amicable with the fans who came to see him that day, the Southern California native just never looked like he wanted to be there, as if he wanted to go back to Southern California, already going through the throes of a world championship and everything tied to that title, including the big parade three days earlier.

Resigned to not having any story -- actually happy I didn't have a story -- I told Ed I'd see him on Sunday right back at the Hall and headed to a phone booth on the boardwalk to call my boss at home. Told him he wasn't going to get a story and I knew he wasn't going to be upset. He knew if I had gotten Dykstra and interviewed him, then it'd be an accomplishment. And after all, the two more important stories were still on the docket and at about 2 p.m., I started heading out of Asbury Park and found my way to the Garden State Parkway where I traveled north to Exit 114.

I had been to Middletown South High five months earlier for Shore Conference Tournament softball when Toms River South upset the top-seeded Eagles in the semifinals. But that was a beautiful, sunny late spring day. Today, it was a dreary, yucky, grey mid-fall day in the mid-50s. Made it to the press box for what I thought it would be an easy game to cover.

However, I should have probably read more on this game. Little did I know that Middletown South's quarterback liked to throw the ball. And so did his coaching staff. Southern was in the middle of a miserably bad football season and this was the last year for Ron Emmert as the head coach. Middletown South was having its way in the football game. Honestly, I remember very little from this game. But what I do remember was that South was throwing the ball on three of every four plays and Southern Regional wasn't getting very far ... and the game took three hours! Middletown South won in a romp that could have been ended say 30 minutes earlier, I grabbed the mild-mannered Emmert after the game as he and I were walking on the field and since I had interviewed him a number of times before, I knew what to expect to hear from him -- good effort, but not good enough to beat a team that was better than his team. I sensed he knew the end of the line was coming for a good amount of the '86 season.

With my notes from the game and the interview I did, I had to saunter somewhere to write the game story and dictate it, but I had very little time to make it happen in just under an hour, knowing the second game was at 7:30. I got to the Monmouth Mall in Eatontown at about 6:30 and quickly composed the story. But at 7 p.m. and grabbing something quick to eat in the food court, I made a phone call to one of our writers in the office to tell him that the story was written, but I knew I had to be at Shore Regional to write the game story so at halftime, I'd dictate the story and statistics to him.

And so I got on the road again from the mall to West Long Branch and Shore Regional High, which again I was familiar with since I was a student at Monmouth College nearby and had seen my fair share of field hockcy matches in recent times featuring the vaunted Shore Regional program. I got into the press box about five minutes before kickoff and asked if there was a pay phone somewhere near the field. The only pay phone, the guy doing the public address system that day told me, was in the front of the school, which was a fairly long walk from the football field. So as I kept my statistics from the football game that was competitive early on between Shore and Manchester, I scoped the field to see Jim Hintelmann of the Red Bank Register walking the sidelines covering the game as well.

When halftime arrived, I got to my car quickly in the parking lot behind the football field and drove around the school to the front of it on Route 36. There was a perfect pay phone there where I could talk to whoever I wanted to from the seat of the car. Once I was able to get in touch with Chris, one of our writers, I was able to give him statistics and dictate my Southern-Middletown South story to him. Thankfully it was a blowout that I could dictate to him in less than 10 minutes. He hit the save button and told him we'd do it again after the Shore game.

So I scurried along some streets back to the football field parking lot, jumped out of the car and started covering the game on the field, something I disdain doing even to this day because you can't see an entire field from your spot walking the same field. But being this was an emergency situation, I had no choice. I walked alongside Jim and for the better part of the third quarter, I was catching up on the game from him between plays and timeouts getting each and every play in order as it happened. Football is not a sport that you can take a play off while keeping statistics -- every play is important and needs to be jotted down.

By this point, Shore had pulled away and was en route to victory over Manchester and in the fourth quarter. Having the statistics taken care of thanks to Jim, who I will always remember fondly in this business, the only thing left was to grab Hunt and interview him afterward. I had done so and it was back to the car ... and back to the front of the building to the same pay phone where I had the call made collect and then dictated the statistics. Then about 15 minutes later, I called collect again and dictated the story on Shore's wipeout of Manchester, which just didn't have it that night.

And by about 10:45 p.m., the night was over. I made a stop at my favorite place in the Eatontown-West Long Branch area -- White Castle on Route 35. My favorite girl working there, Mary, was not there on this Saturday night because she was off celebrating her birthday. But I remember eating in silence and heading home afterward.

The long day was over and two football games that I know I covered in a half-ass manner were done and written and the one assignment I really looked forward to was never finished because of extending circumstances involving the person who was there to sign autographs and the attitude he took on the day.

The next afternoon, I went back to Asbury Park to see Ed and things were much, much quieter on this day -- it was the legendary Brooklyn Dodger Duke Snider, a Hall of Famer in every way. The crowds weren't as huge as they were 27 hours earlier, and that was more than fine. He gave me a great interview and told me about his time as not only a Brooklyn Dodger, but as a New York Met in the early years of the franchise-- "They sold me off like I was a slave."

I went back to the office that evening to write the story for Greg, our assistant sports editor.

The adventurous weekend was over and in the end, I got three stories -- just not in one day.

Sometimes, it's best you don't think of yourself as 10 feet tall and bulletproof. You get better results that way.

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