Meeting a Legend
Starting Saturday, June 30, the Tides were home for a brief four-game homestand, a series against Syracuse. As I’ve probably mentioned before, Tides executive Dave Rosenfield develops the International League schedule every year. One of his driving principles is that every team shall be at home on either July 3 or July 4, the better to have a crowd-drawing patriotic fireworks show after a game. Norfolk is one of the teams that prefers to have its “Independence Day” home game on July 3, rather than July 4; there are many competing events in the Hampton Roads area on the Fourth proper which would distract crowds from attending the ballgame. Other franchises may prefer to have a home game on the Fourth itself, and others may have no preference.
Saturday night’s game was not the smoothest. The Tides had played a Friday night game in Columbus, and were scheduled to fly back to Norfolk early Saturday morning. Unfortunately, their flight was cancelled because the airplane had mechanical difficulties, and the team scrambled to get its traveling party back to Norfolk. Players, managers, even the broadcaster were put on whatever flights had some available seats. Some flew connected through Charlotte, others Philadelphia, still others Washington — six different routings in all.
The Tides did their best to make sure that the least necessary personnel — the radio broadcaster, the strength and conditioning coach, the previous days’ starting pitcher — got on the flights that would arrive latest. And, in fact, most of the team did arrive at the ballpark in time for the 7:15 first pitch. Unfortunately, the Baltimore Orioles stuck their finger into the pie. The Orioles have been struggling recently, and during Saturday afternoon’s game were forced to use both long relief pitchers. They did not want to go into Sunday’s game without a rested long relief pitcher available. By mischance (for the Tides), scheduled Saturday starter Miguel Gonzalez was on the Orioles’ forty-man roster and was obviously rested and ready to pitch. Shortly before Gonzalez was to begin warmups, the Orioles told the Tides that they were going to recall Gonzalez and not to have him make the start.
Hence, the Tides were going to have to scramble for a starting pitcher, adopting the approach of the “bullpen game” in which several relief pitchers would each go as long as they could, hoping to complete the game. Unfortunately, even though the Tides had a nominal 13-man pitching staff and hence 8-man bullpen, this would be problematic. In order to make room for Jim Thome on the 40-man roster, Zach Phillips had been designated for assignment and was consequently removed from the Tides’ roster. The night before, Miguel Socolovich had thrown 27 pitches in 1 2/3 innings; and the night before that, Brad Bergesen pitched 3 2/3 innings. The night before that, Steve Johnson threw five innings; plus J.C. Romero was reactivated after dealing with personal issues and hadn’t pitched in ten days. So, it would be a challenge to get through the game.
By the time the Tides had figured out what to do, and had gotten ready to do it, the game could not be started until 8:00 PM, 45 minutes late. And if there had to be a good night for such a delay, Saturday was a good night. The press box hosted a special guest, sportswriter John Feinstein, author of several sports books. He’s writing a book about AAA baseball, and his travels happened to take him to Norfolk this weekend. Mike, the official scorer, had at one time been a sportswriter for a local paper (he’s still a writer with the paper, but not in sports) and one of his colleagues knew Feinstein quite well.
So, we were able to chat with him for quite a while. Now, I believe that John Feinstein revolutionized sportswriting. Prior to his book “A Season on the Brink”, most sports books were either disposable beach reads or intellectual analyses by outsiders “slumming”. “A Season on the Brink” was a re-readable, insightful book written by a mainstream sportswriter. It demonstrated that there was a market for middlebrow sports books and that sportswriters actually could write. In my first job, ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” was a staple of my Sunday mornings and Feinstein was a regular contributor — one of the first celebrity television sportswriters.
Despite my years as a quasi-insider — I like to joke that my Tides media pass makes me a card-carrying member of the mainstream media — I am still somewhat in awe of professional sportswriters, especially those who are treated as experts with regular appearances on television and radio. They’re seen by millions, and fans hang on their every word. But, at least in the press box on Saturday night, John Feinstein was not a prima donna. He engaged in criticizing the National Anthem singer as eagerly as we did. During our pre-game discussion of the night’s Y Not Pizza Puzzler question, he participated (and, as it turned out, I got the right answer more readily than he did, which probably means that I’m wasting my brain cells on trivia, while he saves his brain cells for more productive pursuits.) He dismissed our praise for his books. In short, John Feinstein disillusioned me — but in a positive way, revealing himself to be a man who, blessed with an undeniable gift, accepts that gift with gratitude and doesn’t act superior because of that gift.