Monday, April 30, 2007

Telling a story without intruding

Sometimes reporters are invited guests, and sometimes it’s just assumed that we’ll be places. But there are other times where I feel like an intruder.

That’s kind of how I felt this week, when I was assigned to cover a memorial service observing the one-year anniversary of a crash that killed four Taylor University students and an employee.

You might have read about some of the developments after the crash.

The identities of two victims were confused. A family from a small northern Michigan community buried their daughter after a funeral that brought more than 1,000 mourners.

The other family stood at the bedside for five weeks while their daughter lay in a coma.
Except that when she awoke, she was able to communicate that she was in fact the girl presumed to have been dead.

I cannot imagine the joy felt by the one family or the despair by the other.

I also realized this was one of those once-in-a-career stories. I don’t think I’ll ever come across anything like it again.

What made it tough was that the families involved refused to talk to the media. That's entirely within their rights. They certainly didn't ask to be thrust into the national spotlight.

The TV types for sure can be intrusive. But I’m safe, at least I try to be. And what people don't realize is that we’re going to write a story anyway. We have to, especially something as amazing as this. It would be better if they could talk to us and make sure we get the right information instead of watching us track down neighbors and friends so we can get some kinds of details.

One of my assignments when this first broke was to head three hours north to the hometown of girl who ended up being alive to, well, talk to neighbors and friends. It was incredible to see the impact she had on this small community and the collective joy people there experienced. I sensed also some collective guilt at being so joyful since their good news plunged another family into mourning, and the people there realized that.

The family kept a blog about the girl’s recovery, and I recommend you start at the first post and read forward for a fascinating and inspiring story. That provided some of the details for us.

I’ve kept up with the story through the months with stories about how this could possibly happen – needless to say, multiple systems broke down in multiple ways – and chronicling the girl’s recovery best as we could.

The anniversary of the crash arrived last Thursday and the paper sent me down to Taylor to cover a memorial service.

Naturally, a nearly four-hour drive provides some opportunities along the way. Well, in places except eastern Indiana, I was thinking as I was more than three hours into the trip without even an interesting rest stop.

Then, as I approached Huntington, Ind., I saw the sign: Dan Quayle Center, United States Vice Presidential Museum.

I was running behind schedule a little after a late start and a driving rain for most of the trip. I thought that I should probably avoid this little side trip. That thought lasted perhaps a nanosecond.

After all, what could possibly be in the Dan Quayle Vice Presidential Museum?

Huntington turned out to be a pretty small and humble place. I pulled up to the museum and guessed it was a former bank. I walked in, surveyed the main room noticed that most of the exhibits appeared to be photos, which made it easy to not stay long.

Two women were sitting right inside the door, and pounced. “Welcome, would you like a tour?” They seemed very disappointed when I said I would only tour the gift shop. I picked up some post cards, a magnet and two campaign buttons from Quayle’s 2000 presidential bid. One is especially cool, noting his “hometown kickoff” on April 14, 1999.

I don’t think they get many visitors because using my debit card was an ordeal that required getting the director to come down and work the register.

This gave us time to talk. Quayle lives in Arizona but comes to the museum at least once a year. His brother was publisher of the Huntington newspaper until it was sold recently.

Apparently the second floor of the museum was dedicated to Quayle and the lower level was for exhibits to the other vice presidents that hail from the Hooiser State. The employees were very nice and I was glad I made the stop.

In fairness, I always thought Quayle didn’t deserve the abuse he received. And he did allow Lloyd Bentsen to get loose with the only line anybody remembers from any vice presidential debate.

But I needed to get back on the road and over to Taylor University, which is a small Christian University in Upland. I pulled up and noticed that some of the television crews had already arrived.

Say this about my electronic competition; it is neither stealth nor subtle. And it seems to be the same no matter what city they come from.

Two massive “storm chaser” rolling billboards/satellite trucks were already parked wherever they damn well pleased alongside the chapel.

Stealth is not an attribute of my competition

I first tracked down the student government president because such people usually like to talk and typically are in the thick of things and can give me some pointers on who to talk to and who to avoid. He was very helpful.

And this is a tricky situation, because anybody who knew the girls knows that the parents didn’t talk to the media, and many of them respected that and didn’t want to talk either – especially with the television types already roaming around campus.

And a lot of these people were still grieving, and the last thing I wanted to do was make them upset.

But I found some nice people eating in the student union, including one who was a close friend of the girl who lived and didn’t mind talking as long as the questions didn’t get too personal.

My job was to write a “color’ story about the mood of the campus, then attend the memorial service to write a short story for our Web page then write a full story and e-mail it back to The Press for the next day’s paper.

After camping in the college union – the students recommended the chicken sandwich – and filing the first story and sending a photo, I went across the street to the chapel and found a seat on the side near the front.

And then in walked the girl who survived and her family. It dawned on me that I had written dozens of stories about her and I had interviewed her friends, teammates, coaches and classmates. Yet this was the first time that I had actually seen the girl in person.

The campus is planning a memorial prayer chapel to be dedicated on the second anniversary of the crash.

I suddenly felt conspicuous and moved to the balcony that hugged the room on three sides, sitting off to the side again where I could observe the speakers and still see the reactions of the girl and her family.

And here’s where I felt like an intruder. In these situations we are torn between being an observer and a participant.

The speaker asked everyone to stand and sing two songs, then later to bow their heads in prayer. If I stood it would seem like I was participating. But if I remained seated I would draw attention to myself. I opted to stand and bow my head; writing only when there was something newsworthy being said.

The idea is to be able to be the eyes an ears of our readers and let them know what happened at an event they care about without hurting the people involved.

Friday, April 20, 2007

My pastor is way-cool -- for a Cubs fan

“Dave, body of Christ, given for you. And don’t forget about the draft at 3:30 today.”

“Amen, Pastor. And I’ll be there.”

It’s safe to say that the liturgy from last week’s Holy Communion was amended slightly. But how cool is my pastor?

I knew Pastor Paul was an inspirational speaker and mentor before we formally joined our church three years ago. What I didn’t know was that he’s a huge baseball fan – which only makes him more inspirational in my household.

He’s a Cubs fan, but that’s OK because it’s not like Cubbies are ever a threat in our Mets-centric world. And clearly, the team isn’t favored from above because we pray for it each week and, well, it’s still the Cubs.

And Pastor Paul always has my back – sometimes a little too aggressively. Last year I was pitching in a coed softball game and I heard a voice riding the umpire something fierce.

The Man in Blue shot me a look that said, “You’d better quiet that guy down or I’m going to squeeze this strike zone so much that it’s narrower than the ball.”

I looked over and it was Pastor Paul, standing behind the backstop, arguing balls and strikes.

So I confess it was more out of loyalty than anything else that I joined a fantasy baseball league he founded last year.

Before you start mocking, there are some things you need to know. I’m a reformed rotisserie guy.

I was big into rotisserie baseball back in 1987 when it was actually cool. And I got a sense that it was important to maintain the activity when I was hired at the Flint Journal three years later.

I made this observation after a fair part of the job interview consisted of rotisserie questions. I like to think that my clips were so strong that the editors had already decided to hire me and were just filling time. But that’s probably not the case.

And, as Will and I learned, the old-timers liked when newcomers joined the league – but weren’t as keen when we win it three years in a row. This led to some unpleasantness and there were some other assorted issues, and I swore off fantasy baseball forever.

But Pastor approached me last year, and he was so excited that I couldn’t turn him down.

It’s not your typical fantasy league. We draft players and assemble lineups and rotations, and a computer program simulates games using stats from the previous year.

This eliminates those “Is it wrong to cheer for my guy when he hits a homer against my real-life favorite team” debates.

The program also allows us to add two Hall-of-Famers, and uses an average of the player’s seven best seasons.

I went into this with a pretty simple strategy: Draft as many Mets as possible and absolutely no Yankees. Goodness knows that Yankee taint can ruin even a pretend team.

Naturally, my two Hall-of-Famers were Tom Seaver and Willie Mays. And I was able to snag Carlos Delgado, David Wright, Tom Glavine, Paul LoDuca, John Maine, Jose Valentin, Darren Oliver, Lastings Milledge and even Scott Kazmir (who I pretend is still a Met).

I did get stuck with one Skankee, Bobby Abreu, who was still a Phillie when I drafted him last year. I also have Jimmy Rollins just for the sheer irony of it all. Consider it reaching out the unchurched.

Now, I don’t want you to think that I belong to some strange church that puts baseball before everything else. Pastor Paul is as passionate about reaching out to the underprivileged as he is to the Cubs, and I’ve never seen a minister so skilled at reaching out to young people.

His lessons bring the Bible to life like no one I've ever seen, and he's been so encouraging as I try to work with our church's youth groups and share with the teens the wonderful things God as done in my life.

And I don’t know how he does it, but he somehow senses when I’m feeling down and knows just how to lift me up again.

Unless, of course, I’m on the mound and behind in the count and an oversensitive umpire is behind the plate.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Bleeping April snow

We’ve had a series of nasty violent incidents in our state and even our fair city in the last week. I blame the snow.

No kidding. We had accumulating snow. Usually in April we get a dusting, but this time it piled up quickly and stuck around.

You know the shock-denial-anger-acceptance stages of grief? Well we in Michigan have stages of snow acceptance. It goes month to month.

November: Sadly, this is when it usually starts. Thanksgiving can either be a wonderful autumn afternoon or the first week that the snowblower gets hauled out of the garage. This is usually followed by much profanity because the gas in the blower has been sitting in the tank since the previous April and the darn thing won’t start. And with relatives from out of state on their way you’re really feeling the pressure. Alas, it’s usually heavy, wet snow and we must stop for a moment and ponder its beauty as it clings to the trees.

December: Snow is acceptable in December. Once it starts, it never lets up and we forget that grass looks like. In fact people get a little cranky in those ultra rare years when the ground isn’t covered. We’ve been conditioned to expect a white Christmas and even feel sorry for those sad folks in warmer climates who don’t experience the joy that Bing is dreaming about.

January: Snow is acceptable, again, in January. Go skiing. I get to wear my fashionable knit Mets cap. By now the blower has nice fresh gas and roars to life at the first pull of the cord. My neighbors on both sides and I have a little system where the first one out clears the sidewalks of the others — but not the driveways. Otherwise we’d never leave the house.

February: It’s starting to get a little old. People comment on this. And when this happens, without fail some smart ass says, "It’s Michigan and it’s February." To which I reply, "Yeah, but I don’t have to like it."

March: When it snows in March — and it always does — people are ticked. We’re tired of smelling like gas after snowblowing. We’re tired of boots. We’re tired of coming out of work in the dark and scraping the frozen crap off the windshield. And there are few sadder sights than the white ground as the plane dips through the clouds for arrival after a trip to spring training. I swear the newly obtained tan melts from your body as the wheels touch the runway.

April: We are openly hostile to snow in April. Actually, we are openly hostile to everything and everyone because of the snow. Woe to the Starbucks barista who puts too much whipped cream on your latte. We refuse to shovel, as if this act of defiance will do anything other than get your feet wet on the way to get the newspaper out of the mail box each morning. We refuse to wear the winter coat once the spring jackets have been out for more than a week. We curse at the television screen when the weather man is on. (In fairness, I curse at the anchors and some of the reporters, too, every day. But that’s just a professional thing.) We shake our fists in rage at the plow driver when he passes the house. We shake our fists at bosses. And kids. And the neighbors’ kids. We kneel damply over or now-limp daffodils that were tricked into shooting out of the ground by a teasing day of 60 degrees. We snap at the little kids who chew on my laptop cord while I'm trying to write a story while my daughter is in dance class. We fondle the new kayak we got for our birthday and wonder if would also work as a sled — then curse that we even think about such things. Usually the Tigers are already six games out of first place at this point, adding to the overall surliness of the month. We sometimes even refrain from blogging for a week because we have nothing nice to say about anyone — especially Jimmy Rollins.

So I wasn’t surprised when Major League Baseball felt the need to move three Indians games from snow-covered Cleveland to Milwaukee with its retractable roof. I’m confident it was for the safety of the players — from fans who had just one snow day too many.

In other words... Lets Go Emps!

Faith and Fear in Flushing is required reading every day, but Greg's post about the origins of the team name -- and some of the others considered -- is so awesome that it must be pointed out for all to read. A classic!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

I'm glad Willie is wearing No. 42. I wish David Wright would wear it, too.

I write about an inner-city school district where about 75 percent of the students are minorities.

Every January, the district makes a big deal about Martin Luther King Jr. Day. And it should.

Yet the day seems to pass like any other in our suburban districts. And without getting all PC on everybody, it kind of burns me that the districts seem to think that only people of color can appreciate why King was important.

But mandating the districts do something to recognize the day would be a waste. It has to be sincere to have meaning.

I thought about that today when I read that Mets Manager Willie Randolph will be allowed to wear Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 on Sunday, when Major League Baseball commemorates the 60th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier.

My buddy Will pointed out that it was Reds slugger Ken Griffey Jr. who came up with the idea and called Bud Selig to make the request. Bud liked the idea enough to open it to every team.

Among those jumping on board are former Met Mike Cameron, now of the Padres, and Barry Bonds. Of course, Yankee cyborg Mariano Rivera will be wearing the number, too. He’s the last player still on the field who wore No. 42 before it was retired at a Shea Stadium ceremony in 1997.

I noted that the Red Sox players should be forced to wait until August to wear the number to remind us all of how unenlightened the team was in taking forever to add a black player.

I loved Willie’s widely reported quote: "I said I’d have to fight whoever to get to wear No. 42. Anything associated with Jackie Robinson is an honor for me, and it will be a very special day to wear his No. 42."

Then it dawned on me I’d love the quote even more if it came from David Wright. Or Greg Maddux. Or Chipper Jones. Or Randy Johnson. Or Jim Thome. Or Pronk. Or Curt Schilling. Or any other star who happens to be white.

All of them benefited greatly the day Jackie Robinson bravely stepped on that field, not just the black players. Just like all of us are better off today because of the Rev. King’s life work.

And just once, I’d like to see someone recognize that.

It should be noted that the entire Dodger team is wearing No. 42 for that Sunday game against the Padres when Robinson’s legacy will be saluted. I think that’s a good idea. But I also wonder if it’s like telling the suburban school districts to conduct an assembly on King Day.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Jim McAndrew and unforeseen opportunities

As a reporter, I write a lot of stories about unfortunate folks who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Jim McAndrew, I submit to you, is someone who can say they were in the right place at the right time, at least as far as our Mets-centric world is concerned.

The pitcher had a tidy little career, coming up to the Mets in 1968 and leaving at the end of the 1973 season, playing just 15 games for the Padres the next year before hanging them up.

His best year was 1972, when he posted 11 wins and 8 losses with a spiffy 2.80 ERA, and he finished 37-53 with a 3.60 ERA.

More importantly, he came up in time to earn a championship ring in 1969 and held on long enough to be a part of the National League champs in 1973. Had he been on the team a few years prior or a couple seasons later, well, the scene would not have been as pretty.

Why, you might ask, are we putting a nice happy face on Jim McAndrew?

Two years ago on this day we celebrated the Tom Seaver birthday. Last year was the Jackie Robinson Birthday. And today, according to the friends at Mets By The Numbers, we just don’t have a lot to choose from.

McAndrew, as I’m sure you have guessed, wore uniform No. 43.

Other Mets to wear it were Ted Schreiber (1963); Bill Wakefield (1964); Darrell Sutherland (1964-66); Dick Rusteck (1966); Joe Grzenda (1967); Paul Siebert (1977-78); Juan Berenguer (1978-80); Terry Leach (1981-82); Billy Beane (1984); John Mitchell (1986-89); Kevin Brown (1990); Dan Schatzeder (1990); Doug Simons (1991); Mark Dewey (1992); Mickey Weston (1993); Mike Remlinger (1994-95); Paul Byrd (1995-96); Toby Borland (1997); Todd Pratt (1997); John Hudek (1998), Rigo Beltran (1998-99); Pete Walker (2001-02); and Jaime Cerda (2002-03) and Shane Spencer (2004). Jason Vargas apparently has this number should be called up from New Orleans this season.

I’ve had the pleasure of writing about Weston multiple times over the years, and he is a first-rate person. And Terry Leach sure had moments of glory.

But McAndrew seems to be the best of that lot. And he will be our example for the year to look for good around us, take advantage of the opportunities the Lord has blessed us with even if they don’t seem all that exciting at the time. Remember, the Mets were still somewhat stinky when McAndrew came up in 1968.

Sometimes He sends us into places we don't expect to be, or don't want to be. We don't know what might be around the corner. And sometimes it might be wonderful -- though not always a World Series ring, as in McAndrew's case.

My goal for this year is to trust Him more, confident that He has a plan for me and that I don't get to see it in advance.

Glories of Opening Day

We celebrated the traditional Opening Day on Monday in style in the newsroom .

Folks here are still geeked about the Tigers, and the business writers prepared a feast of hot dogs, Cracker Jack, root beer, Big League Chew and other ballpark-themed snacks.

I contributed my famous chocolate chip cookies — making their second blog appearance of the day — baked while celebrating the real Opening Day the night before as our boys taught the Cards a lesson they won’t soon forget.

It was pretty exciting Monday when the Tigers were tied and Scott Kazmir drilled Derek F. Jeter, proving that deep down he’s still a Met.

Alas, after both the Tigers pen and Devil Rays backdraft bullpen gave away their games, I was the only one still bouncing around happily.