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21 October, 2015

ESPN - Thanks for the memories

   When I was 12-years old and living in Greenwich, Connecticut, ESPN opened their doors. Cable television was a mystery world back then. Somehow it meant there were more channels to watch and a greater variety of content coming into my living room. When I heard there was an all-sports TV station opening just an hour north of where I lived, my mind was blown. I daydreamed about some day being able to work there.
   15 years later, ESPN opened their doors to me. I had been producing local news in Orlando and had worked with Stuart Scott. He helped get me an interview and in December of 1994 I was hired. My career began as a producer of the overnight show, which was then a half-hour show that came on at 2:30 in the morning. I worked with Craig Kilborn, Brett Haber, Gary Miller and Karl Ravech. The hours were tough but we had a lot of fun and I was learning on the fly. I provided the guys with some catch phrases that stuck and developed a good relationship with those guys. In the immediate years that followed I worked with Bob Ley, Charley Steiner, Robin Roberts, Dan Patrick, Keith Olbermann, Kenny Mayne, Steve Levy, Linda Cohn, Bill Pidto, Rich Eisen and Stuart Scott. It was virtually impossible to not improve as a producer working with people like that. Being an anchor was what I had really wanted to do with my career but when ESPN offered the producer job, I decided going to the major leagues as a producer was a better career path than trying to be an anchor in some super small market. Because of my desire to be on air, I was always drawn to those people and their craft. Over the years I dedicated a lot of my time trying to help the talent be better at their jobs. In fact, just a few months back I was given the role of talent coach and was really enjoying that exciting new opportunity. My dad was a teacher and a coach, so in some way I was kind of following in his footsteps. The last six weeks of my time at ESPN ended up being some of the most rewarding work I ever did there.
   When I look back on my 20+ years at ESPN I am grateful for the opportunities working there provided me. I was at the Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt finally won that race. I worked multiple Final 4s and the US Open at Pebble Beach when Tiger obliterated the field. I was at the '96 summer games and produced our live coverage of the bombing in Centennial Park from the moment the bomb went off around 1:20am until well into the following afternoon.
   My 7 years on Baseball Tonight allowed me to attend pretty much every All-Star game, Hall of Fame induction and World Series from 2000-2007. The highlight came when I was standing on the field for batting practice before game one of the Mets and Yankees World Series. I called my dad, the man responsible for teaching me to love baseball and a man who grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan (later to convert to the Mets when the Dodgers skipped town) and I said to him "You know where I am right now? I am standing on the field before game one of the Subway Series. Thank you for making me a baseball fan." I still get emotional thinking about what that moment meant to me.
My last year producing the inductions in Cooperstown I had my dad go up there with me and was able to take him behind the scenes and meet all of the Hall of Famers. It was my way of paying him back a little for all he did for me. It was a great weekend for both us. I could never have done that, or experienced all those other great moments, without my job at ESPN.
   Over my time in Bristol I have been blessed to work with so many talented people, both on air and behind the scenes. I thank all of them. The anchors, analysts, producers, directors, production staff, the researchers, news editors, assignment desk workers, talent bookers, TDs, ADs and all the others who contribute every day. As a producer you walk in the door every day with a vision for what your show will be, but it takes dozens and dozens of people to help you execute that vision. It's hard work, but it's incredibly rewarding when everyone gets on the same page and it goes well. In my 20+ years the successes far outweighed the non-successes (I refuse to call them failures) and that would not have been possible without the efforts of so many talented people.
   It's hard to have thick skin about the shots people take at ESPN when you live inside those walls and understand the determination and dedication we put into making a product that people could enjoy. There was never a day that I walked in the door at work and said "I need to make sure today we ignore west coast sports or don't talk about hockey." The goal of any television station is to get people to watch. If the ratings go up when we talk about the Red Sox and Yankees, then we'll probably talk more about the Red Sox and Yankees. If McDonalds doesn't sell many Filet O' Fish, they probably dial back on how hard they push that product.
   Were there people with agendas? Of course. But in the day-to-day grind of doing shows, my objective and the objective of the people I was working with was to produce the best show we possibly could. That's something of which I will always be proud. And for those of you who have grown to "hate" ESPN for various reasons, at the very least you have to recognize what a pioneer the company was. All the other sports channels you watch, all the regional sports networks and ESPN competitors exist because of ESPN. Many former ESPNers work in those places now, applying the skills they learned in Bristol to make high quality programming for other networks.
   When I started in 1994, ESPN was still a relatively small operation and over the next 20 years it grew into a world wide corporation. That process is going to come with growing pains, missteps, bad decisions, struggle and setbacks. It also allows for growth, creativity and ingenuity. It was a great time to be with the company and be part of all of that. It was basically the puberty of my professional career minus the acne and awkward conversations with teenage girls.
   I forged many great relationships over the years with my co-workers. Some of the best friends I have, I met at ESPN. That can never be taken away from me. And for all it's warts and issues, ESPN rallies around it's employees when they are in need in incredible fashion. When personal tragedy strikes you can count on the ESPN family to come out in full force offering their support. And when we suffer our own tragedy, like we did when Stuart died last January, we bonded together to help each other get through it. It's easy to forget stuff like that when a company decides they don't need you anymore, but I'll always appreciate that about ESPN.
   When I first started producing SportsCenter, a weird sensation came over me. I realized I could never watch the show the way I had over the 15 years before I got there. I had peeked behind the curtain. There was no turning back. The wonderment of being a fan was gone. Now, all these years later, I'll be watching it differently again. I'll always be proud of the mark I made. I'll always be glad for the friendships I've made. It will always be an honor to have "ESPN 1994-2015" on my resume.
   I've never been let go before. I'm still processing it. A lot of good people were let go today, many of them had been there longer than me. Many of them I had worked closely with on projects I am quite proud of. It sucks. I know everyone goes through it, some multiple times. But it's new to me. I'm not bitter, not yet anyway. I hope I never am, but I can't blame any of the others for feeling that way. At first blush, I am grateful for my experiences over the last 20+ years. I can't imagine what my life would have become if I opted for the other path.
   It's hard to mentally put myself in a place like I was in 1979, dreaming of what might lay ahead some day, but I'll get there. Who knows what's next? Not me. All I know is getting off exit 31 on I-84 in Bristol isn't part of the journey anymore.

30 August, 2015

Sandy and Elmo

   When my oldest son was a toddler, CinderElmo was his video of choice. We must have watched it 100 times. Early in the movie Elmo is bummed because his stepsisters are going to the ball and he's not. Elmo wishes on a star and instead of getting a fairy godmother, a temp fairy godperson named Frank shows up. Frank tells Elmo that he doesn't care for the idea of a fairy godperson flying in one's window and helping out when things get sticky. He goes on to tell Elmo, if you want to make something happen you have to do something, which leads to him singing a cute little ditty about just that, doing something.
   As the baseball trade deadline approached this summer and I considered the Mets place in the standings, I couldn't get that song out of my head.
Frank's words rang in my ears

"If you've got a dream... do something.
Aint enough to dream... do something."

  I was saying it and people with much larger platforms than me were saying the same thing, do something!  Even though the Mets were hovering around .500, they weren't a spec in the Nats rear view mirror like everyone expected them to be. The race was close and a fan base that was tired of being the CinderElmo to the Phillies and Nats wicked step-brothers in recent years, had a glimmer of hope. Sure, the offense was abysmal and stars like David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud were forging strong relationships with doctors and trainers, but the pitching was excellent. Just get us some bats, Sandy!
  But Alderson was playing it cool, like Shane checking out all the bad guys when he walked into Grafton's saloon for the first time. Alderson said things like "the market is still developing," and when asked if the trade deadline would be considered a failure if they didn't make a deal he replied, "Not as long as we've worked as hard as I think we need to and have worked the process as hard as we possibly can." Mets fans were were screaming for Sandy to fire his gun but all he wanted to do was buy some jeans and drink some pop. 

   With the less-than-thrifty Wilpon's holding the purse strings, there was no reason to believe the Mets would do anything. Besides, 2016 is supposed to be the year. What's the rush?  But here's the thing; From 2000 to 2007 when I was working on Baseball Tonight, every time the deadline approached, our analysts would talk about how doing something, anything, for a team in the hunt sends a message to the locker room that the front office believes in them and is as invested in winning as they are. Those former players and managers on our show were adamant that it makes a difference.
   Does it always work? Of course not. Would it work for the Mets? It was worth finding out because most guys in the locker room hadn't been in pennant races nor had they been in a locker room that added pieces for the stretch run. Give them a boost and see what happens. 
   And then it happened. Uribe and Johnson picked up from Atlanta. Conforto gets called up. Wilmer cries and stays. Cespedes arrives. Since then, it's been the Mets world. Suddenly Terry Collins wasn't hitting John Mayberry Jr. cleanup but equally as important, they didn't have a bench of Darrell Ceciliani, Johnny Monell, Danny Muno and Eric Campbell. No more AAAA players but professional hitters who have been around the league. They also have a plethora of interchangeable parts. Terry Collins can mix and match and has a strategic advantage the likes of which he has never had before. It reminds me of the late 90s Yankees when they had veterans like Raines, Strawberry, Fielder and Leyritz on their bench. 
   And now, September is here.  Ah, September. It's been a while since the Mets played, as Fred Wilpon once called them, "meaningful games" in September. In fact, the last time they did, it didn't go well. The El Foldos of 2007 and 2008 still linger. Mets fans whimper when someone says Tom Glavine. We are still wiping the tears from our eyes from the last game at Shea. Not just because the stadium closed for good that day, but so did another season of unfulfilled promise. 
   As this September approaches it's hard not to look back at the calendar and count up all the Amazin' moments that have made for an in-progress collection of highlights for a great season-in-review DVD. 
The 11-game winning streak in April. 
Matt Harvey's triumphant return from Tommy John surgery. 
Jacob deGrom's "lookie what I can do!" All-Star game performance.
The arrival of Thor, Noah Syndergaard, the hard-throwing rookie who gave the Mets and their fans a glimpse at what could be an absurdly good rotation in the years to come (or maybe even this year!). 
The first ever 3-homer game at home by a Met, turned in by once released then reclaimed, sub-.200 hitting Kirk Neiuwenheis. 
A comeback win in Tampa when they trailed entering the 7th, 8th and 9th inning. Something they had never done before. 
Lucas Duda hitting 9 homers in 8 games. 
A sweep of the Nats at Citi Field to pull into a tie for first place.  A sweep that came on the heels of a brutal, kick-to-the-groin loss to the Padres. A sweep that started with a walk-off homer from newly crowned cult hero "Wil-mer Flor-es" (clap clap, clap-clap-clap) and was capped by a 3-homers-in-5-pitches assault of Jordan Zimmerman on national TV. 
There was the road trip to Baltimore, Colorado and Philly where they went 8-1, bashing 24 homers. They scored a franchise-record 73 runs in the last 7 games of that trip, all wins. 
Also during that trip they got their captain back and all David Wright did was blast a ball to the moon with his first swing of the bat. 
That was the first of a franchise-record 8 homers in a game. The trip concluded with the second of two wins in Philly when they trailed by 5 runs in a game. 
To cap it all off, Carlos Torres and Daniel Murphy teamed up for the Kick-Snag-Flip heard 'round the world. That DVD is going to have a few bonus discs.
  In the first half of the season we were trotting out stats about the Mets being 41-5 when they scored at least 4 runs. How they had lost 9 games in the first half when their pitchers allowed 2 or fewer runs. Then Sandy Alderson did something and everything changed. During their 7-game destruction of the Rockies and Phillies the fewest runs they scored in a game was 5. 5 runs in a game in May would have been Eutopia.
  Certain words and phrases will dominate September for the Mets: Magic number. Inning limits. Choke. Mets fans certainly hope see the first phrase run out beofre the second phrase does. As for the third, like I said, 2007-2008 are wounds not yet healed, so Mets fans will likely be watching games with their hands over their eyes while peaking at the Nationals score as well. And yet, there is something about this team. The collection of moments and miracles have piled up like a stack of chips when you are on a roll at the poker table. 
  No one saw this coming. And it may have never come if Sandy Alderson didn't do something. Thankfully he did. Perhaps he is the Mets fairy godfather and they're going to get to go to the ball afterall. 

20 July, 2015

Brace Yourself

  Brace yourself, Mets fans. We've been here before. Many, many times.
   Where, exactly is "here"? It's that place entering a big series against the team we are battling for the division. It's that place where winning the first game would mean so much, breath some life into the team and provide hope for the fans that good times await on the other end of that series.
   The Mets begin a 3-game series in Washington tonight just 2 games back of the Nats for the lead in the NL East. They have lined up their rotation so that their big guns, Harvey, deGrom and Syndergaard will take the mound AND their anemic offense won't have to see Max Scherzer.
If the Mets fans were to dare and dream about a sweep, they would be dreaming of a 1-game lead in the division when the series ends. Good times!
   But recent history suggests it won't go well tonight. The Mets have an uncanny way of sucking the life out of a big series from the jump, losing game 1 with frequency.

   July 2, 1999: The Mets are 3 back of the Braves as Atlanta comes to Shea. Yes, it's early July but the Mets have built a good team and they have a chance to send a message to their fans and the Braves that they mean business this year. Instead Atlanta gave the Mets the business, winning game one 16-0. They lost the next one too before taking the finale and saving a little face. The Mets hung in there and even overtook the Braves for part of the summer before going to Atlanta in late September for a big series.

September 21, 1999: The Mets entered that series 1 game back and promptly lost the opener when Chipper Jones homered in the bottom of the 8th Dennis Cook. 2-1 Atlanta. The Braves swept the series and the Mets were left to battle for the Wild Card.

July 20, 2000. The Mets are 5 back of the Braves when they go there for a 3-game set. Do some damage and it's a race! Or lose the opener 6-3, drop two of three and leave town 6 back.

September 18, 2000: Not dead yet! 3 back with a 3-game series in Atlanta. Here we go!
He we don't. Braves win 6-3, take two of three and keep the Mets at bay, once again forcing them to battle for the wild card.

September 28, 2001: Post 9/11 the Mets played well and created some buzz. They won 8 of 9, including the "Piazza Game" and two of three vs the Braves at Shea. They went from 7 back to 3 back as they began a 3-gamer in Atlanta. Hopes were high. Everyone was talking about what a great story it would be given the circumstances. But then Steve Trachsel gave up 3 homers and the Braves took the opener 5-3. For good measure Atlanta walked-off the next day when they scored 7 in the bottom of the 9th off Benitez and Franco, capped by a Brian Jordan grand slam. Thanks for coming, drive home safely.

September 15, 2007: It's the flip-side view of things. Mets lead the Phillies by 6.5 games. Take care of business and put the Fightins in your rearview mirror. Or.... lose the opener 3-2 in 10 when Mike Difelice and Aaron Heilman both misplay bunts, leading to a sac fly. Tack on Beltran whiffing with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 8th just for yucks. Philly swept the series and the Mets executed one of the worst collapses in history.

  So here we are. It's not September, but somehow, some way, the Mets have hung around this long and they begin a 3-game series in Washington just two games back. The aces are lined up to pitch. If, by chance, they were to sweep maybe the front office would reward them with a deal for a bat or two to help them in the race. The table is set. The fans are excited for tonight and the two nights after that.
What could possibly go wrong?