By Morris Phillips
SAN FRANCISCO–From age six, I’ve been in the ballpark. I’ve been to hundreds of Major League baseball games, as wide-eyed kid to the present as a journalist for a Bay Area-based website. I’ve enjoyed every game, every experience, but none could top NLDS Game 1 Friday night at Oracle Park.
The atmosphere was electric. The stadium was sold out. And the people–from the stadium employees to the players on the field, and everyone in between–were energized beyond belief. At the end of the evening, no one wanted to leave.
And… oh, yeah, the Giants beat the Dodgers 4-0.
For me, the evening unfolded by providing mixed signals. My decision to ride one stop past Oracle Park on the Muni T Line backfired and left me motionless on the train at the corner of 2nd and King for… eight minutes. Finally, the train operator announced that we were going to be turning left.
“Ok, but when?” I thought to myself. Well, after eight minutes was the answer.
Released from the train, I waited to retrieve my credential at the media will-call window for the three home games in the series, a young woman approached in need of a mask. The COVID mantra seemingly never ceases: no mask, no entry.
I reached in my bag and offered her two. Her reply was a mind bender, and temporarily left me stunned.
“How much (do you want me to pay)?,” she said.
Finally–fractions of a second ticked off–I responded politely, “You needed a mask, and I gave you one (two).”
It’s approaching game time at this point, and what do I know about monetizing the endless supply of free masks I’ve unearthed over the last 19 months? Absolutely nothing, especially with the game less than an hour away, and me already thinking about all the conversations I wanted to have once inside the park.
So in the park I went, and talk I did.
Within our website, sportsradioservice.com, are schedules and a pecking order that anointed my colleague, Jeremy Kahn and I entry for the series, but only one of us is required to write the recap for each game. That schedule, based on the day of the week, gave him both Game 1 and 2. My assignment for the evening was to piggy back Kahn’s story with a feature piece, the subject matter of my choosing. On the occasion of the first Dodger-Giants playoff game ever, I was free to roam.
And while most of the people’s heroes last night were on the field with names like Mookie, Buster, Craw and the like, all my heroes are in the press box. If there’s anything I love more than baseball, it’s the journalism and stories that accompany the game, and the people that chronicle them.
The press box was full Friday night, all familiar faces, many I hadn’t seen since the advent of COVID.
I immediately approached Kerry Crowley, the talented, and youthful, beat writer for the San Jose Mercury News and the Bay Area News Group. Crowley wrote the story on Bryan Stow, the Giants’ fan who traveled to Dodgers Stadium only to suffer a life-threatening injuries in the parking lot after the game at the hands of two perpetrators who were inebriated and violent, Dodgers’ “fans.”
Upon the 10-year anniversary of that tragic evening, Crowley, in February, wrote how Stow soldiers on, in a wheel chair, permanently disabled, and is under the constant care of his immediate family, who quite frankly, are angels. These days, Stow travels to local schools in the Santa Cruz/Soquel area giving speeches to school age children about the pitfalls of bullying, by referencing his story softened for much younger audiences.
I know the Stow story. My 13-year old daughter and her mom live just blocks from Stow in Capitola. We’ve trick-or-treated at his house on Halloween. I’ve seen Stow numerous times over the last 10 years at Oracle Park, when he’s been invited by the Giants’ organization to attend games. His life is difficult, painful as are the lives of his family.
I catch Crowley to ask if he had read the comments section for his article. In this case, for his story, the world of trolls–the people motivated to comment and say almost anything under the cloak of anonymity–goes to a dark, dark place.
Luckily, Crowley said he never reads those comments. Unfortunately, I did.
Underneath the Stow story, a commenter is ranting, and taking on all who find his words objectionable. The commenter says Stow was drinking that evening as well, and had he not encountered two men who attempted to take his life in the parking lot, he may very well have been the subject of a DUI incident in which he injured, or killed, someone else. The dissenters weighed in, as if asking this crazy theorist what planet he was from.
And the troll continued. Next, he claimed that Stow was the instigator in the event, hurling bad language and slurs at his attackers, provoking them. Of course, no proof exists of that, the lengthy court case that followed never crossed such a bridge. Once again, this was a dark place. I finally ran from my laptop that day in February, disgusted.
I took a deep breath, thanked Crowley for his words, and moved on. The rest of my interactions Friday night were far lighter.
I went upstairs to the broadcast level, and encountered Dave Flemming, the ubiquitous Giants’ play-by-play man who must work 200 nights a year (I exaggerate) and is much in demand, and paid handsomely, for his velvet-smooth work behind the microphone.
At the same time, Flem and I are in the bathroom, the only quiet bathroom in the entire building normally, and especially on a night where 41,934 are packed in.
“Flem, we’ve been to three World Series, Barry Bonds hit his 73rd home run here, and this feels like the biggest night the ballpark has ever seen,” I tell him.
Fleming says, “I agree,” and he’s off… back to his booth to interact with John Miller, Kruk and Kuip.
Next, I speak with Thomas Harding, the long time beat writer for the Colorado Rockies. He’s escaped Denver and the substandard baseball that was played there by the home team this summer, and snagged a plum national assignment for MLB.com. Harding, always jovial, complains lightly that younger journalists within his organization are getting assignments that he would prefer, but he soldiers on, happy to be associated with the game, taking what he can get, and grateful for his long run in the press box.
I’m not sure if he exactly remembers who I am, but he acts as if he does, and that’s all that matters. After all, Harding, too, is one my heroes.
John Shea, the local dean of baseball journalists with 33 years stuffed into his notebooks, is next. We interact briefly, and I tell him this postseason is packed with good teams, not just the Dodgers and the Giants, and that the winner of this epic series isn’t in anyway ordained to play their best baseball for another three weeks after this and win the World Series. Not with the mercurial Tampa Rays, the newly “clean” and dangerous Houston Astros, not to mention the quietly-positioned Milwaukee Brewers looming.
Shea agrees with me (wow!) and then references the ’93 Atlanta Braves. He says, remember how the Braves outlasted the Giants that year in the previous, divisional race of the ages, winning 104 games, while the tough-luck Giants faltered on the season’s final day, winning 103? Well, the Braves, he says, didn’t have anything left. The lost to the Phillies, four games-to-two, in the NLCS, falling short of the World Series.
Michael Wagaman, the Associated Press writer, read nationally through numerous outlets–and per AP’s policy, often read anonymously–walks up, and we both start laughing uncontrollably. I’ve recently one-upped Waggs on Facebook, agreeing with his post in which he writes to a friend that he’s “not sure how it’s going to go down” in regards to his postseason assignment.
I wrote, humor in full-bloom, that “Waggs knows how it’s going to go down… AP said, “Wags, we want you to work the NLDS and the potential NLCS but we need you sit in the auxiliary seating behind the left field foul pole and sit in one of the two seats facing away from the field and the temporary TV monitors.”
“Thank God (Waggs) had enough self-respect to say, “I’m not so sure.”
Wagaman loves my take, but his colleague, Janie McCauley, the only universally revered sportswriter in the entire room, not so much. McCauley, acting as part stepmom, and maybe a bit peeved that my post may have slighted her as she doles out the assignments for AP’s local stable of writers, scolds me when she walks up to my seat a few innings later.
“How dare you say that about Waggs,” McCauley says. “I almost called you.”
I’m rendered speechless, and laughing. Needless to say, given her stature, I owe her an apology no matter what. She’ll be getting that apology within the next 24 hours.
Eric He, a 2019 USC graduate, is sitting next to me. We’ve got as much in common as any two men 35 years apart in age could possibly have: we both love the profession, he’s unquestionably on his way up, and I love asking him questions about his experiences, and mentoring in anyway I can. Already, in less than three years, He has written for the Los Altos Town Crier (local news), sfbay.ca.com (sports) and currently with Patch, the new-age news organization that promises news from any U.S. location, you just punch in the zip code.
We’re chatting like crazy, and when I get all blubber-mouthed about Scott Ostler, Tim Kawakami, T.J. Simer and Bill Plaschke, the super quartet that have fueled the Los Angeles Times sports pages over the last quarter century in different, overlaying stints, He taps me and gets me to pipe down. Eric quickly points out that Plaschke is sitting right in front of us and I should lower my voice.
Andrew Baggarly, formerly of the Mercury News and NBC Sports Bay Area, and currently with the Athletic, is next. Baggarly and I both went to Northwestern University in Evanston, IL at different times with Baggarly going on to big things and me flunking out. I tell Baggarly that Mark Fainaru-Wada was my sports editor at NU that assigned me to cover the women’s softball team my sophomore year. Fainaru-Wada hit it big with the book “Game of Shadows” he co-authored that chronicled the BALCO scandal and outed Barry Bonds. But back in 1984, he was a senior at Northwestern, and he somehow found some extra money in the school paper’s budget to send me to Omaha to cover the softball team at the College World Series.
How could I say no to Fainaru-Wada? He was my editor and an unquestioned big shot, even back then. But I knew the timing of the CWS and final exams weren’t going to bode well for my plummeting GPA. But I went anyway–on Greyhound–to Omaha.
Sure enough, that June, just two weeks after the semester ended, a letter arrived at my home back in San Francisco. The Medill School of Journalism declared I wasn’t studying 10 hours per day and that they were not renewing my financial aid package. The School was right, I wasn’t studying 10 hours a day, but I wondered how they could so definitively say that I wasn’t.