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Postseason Press Box memories --- part 2
by Thom Loverro
Oct 23, 2014 -- 1:29pm
ESPN 980

The Washington Times stopped sending me to cover postseason baseball after 1997 for several reasons. The business was changing, and not for the better. Deadlines were getting worse, as newspaper distribution grew wider and wider in geography.

Many years ago, a hometown paper might have a 5-10 mile radius for delivery to most of its customers. Now, given not just the suburban growth but even to rural areas – and how willing people are to travel great distances from the city to live in affordable, comfortable housing – that radius was more like 90 miles now. We had customers to deliver the paper to in places like Richmond, Va., and Charles Town, W. Va.

Because of those limitations for us, the smaller paper in town, we didn’t have the resources on the desk and production to handle two late stories – a game story by our baseball writer and a column by me, sometimes coming in after midnight – for postseason baseball coverage. So they decided to just send our baseball writer to give the basics of coverage for our readers. Also, with about 10 minutes to file after the game ended, there would not be much difference between the game coverage and any column. So I was on hiatus from covering postseason baseball.

That changed in 2003, as the reality of baseball returning to Washington grew closer. It was important for me to be around the postseason atmosphere, where you run into many insiders in the baseball industry and can pick up valuable information about the story that I had been chasing since 1994 – a baseball team in Washington.

I came back to postseason baseball in 2003, and I came back with a bang.

I covered the memorable 2003 American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. I was in the Fenway Park press box for game three on October 11, 2003, with the series tied at 1-1, when all hell broke loose.

 

It was a matchup between former Red Sox pitching great Roger Clemens and the ace who replaced him, Pedro Martinez. The atmosphere was tense. Karim Garcia was hit in the back by a pitch from Martinez. The Yankee dugout started yelling at Martinez. Then Manny Ramirez was buzzed by a Clemens fastball and charged the mound. Both dugouts emptied, and it was an all-out brawl. But right in front of us, we saw 72-year-old Don Zimmer running toward Martinez with his arms swinging. He was going to fight him! Martinez grabbed him on the back of the head and pulled him down to the ground, and it felt like something pretty bad was about to happen. After about 15 minutes, order seemingly was restored.

A few innings later, though, I was sitting near Sports Illustrated Tom Verducci when he yelled, “There’s a fight in the bullpen!” We looked up and saw Yankees relief pitcher Jeff Nelson fighting with a Fenway Park groundskeeper.

Since this was an afternoon game, there was no shortage of column material for me and plenty of time to write it.

Game four the next day was rained out, which led to dueling press conferences between the Red Sox and Yankees brass, each blaming the other for what happened. Remember, this was the height of the “Evil Empire” designation that Boston owner Larry Lucchino gave the Yankees.

I was in the Yankee Stadium press box for game seven, when Grady Little left a tiring Pedro Martinez in the game in the eighth inning, resulting in the Yankees scoring three runs to tie the game at 5-5. And yes, I was there Aaron Boone sent Tim Wakefield’s first pitch deep into the Bronx night for the game-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th.

Right next to the press box at Yankee Stadium was George Steinbrenner’s celebrity box. And the only thing separating the two was a piece of plexiglass. I was sitting front row right next to the plexiglass. Right on the other side, just a few feet away, sat Billy Crystal and Robin Williams, who, like many Yankees fans that night, hugged each other in joy after Boone blasted his home run.

The Yankees would go on to lose a forgettable six-game World Series to the upstart Florida Marlins. I remember the Marlins colorful manager, Jack McKeon, telling a story about how he went to church every morning, and before he walked in, he would put the cigar he was smoking in a ledge outside the church. Then, when he came out after services, take the cigar back out and light it up again. My father would do the same thing.

I was there again in 2004 when the Yankees were up 3-0 in the League Championship Series – winning game three by a score of 19-8 – when, down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth with Mariano Rivera on the mound, wound up winning the game when pinch runner Dave Roberts stole second and scored on a single by Bill Mueller to tie the game. Boston would win on a two-run home run by David Ortiz in the 12thinning, and remarkably, win the next three as well to take the series. They would face the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.

Boston would sweep St. Louis, but what I remember from this was several columns I came up with. Here is some more inside baseball – because of our deadline limitations, I had to write columns for the next day that stood up no matter what the result of the game was, a feature-style column. Sometimes that is easy, when you simply write about the next day’s starting pitchers. But this was my column – a source of pride – and I wanted to come up with something different, something unique. Sometimes, I nailed it.

The Red Sox-Cardinals series featured a showdown between two former partners – Red Sox owner Larry Lucchino and St. Louis owner Bill DeWitt. They were partners to buy the Baltimore Orioles in 1993 for $140 million from Eli Jacobs, when the deal fell apart because Jacobs went into bankruptcy. Lucchino and DeWitt agreed to become partners with Peter Angelos when he made his successful $173 million bid for the franchise in bankruptcy court, but both found out there is nothing more limited than being a limited partner with Peter Angelos. Lucchino dropped out quickly after the sale, and DeWitt, after declaring upon the sale of the team that he would be in charge of baseball operations, bowed out a year later.

Now both of them would face each other in the World Series – both had recovered well and were now enjoying success that Angelos never had in baseball.

The column for someone from Washington, and particularly Baltimore, to write was about the two owners. Turns out I was the only one who noticed that.

Getting Lucchino was easy. I had a relationship with him ever since I did the book, “Home of the Game – the story of Camden Yards.” I got him on the phone and interviewed him about his history with DeWitt and how they both wound up there now in the World Series.

But DeWitt was harder. I had met him before, but didn’t know him well. I had no way to get in touch with him, so that meant I had to go through the Cardinals public relations department. Like most major league baseball PR departments, they were useless, so I only had a one-sided column.

Walking through a packed Fenway Park just minutes before game time – surrounded by a sea of people – I turn around suddenly and bump into – guess who – Bill DeWitt! I spent a few minutes interviewing him and had my column – a good angle that no one else had.

The other column I liked from that series was something that tied into the pain of Red Sox fans, particularly the 1986 World Series pain, the game six loss to the New York Mets on the ground ball that went through Bill Buckner’s legs. In a small item in the Boston Globe – about an inch – was a note about a baseball clinic being held in town that featured a number of former major league ballplayers.

One of the players? Mookie Wilson.

Mookie Wilson was going to be in Boston during the World Series – the man whose dribbler of a ground ball changed the history of this franchise. That was too good to pass up, so I went to the clinic and interviewed Wilson.  I always thought it was curious that Boston fans never vilified Wilson for hitting the ground ball. They made Buckner the villain, though it was likely that Wilson would have beat out the ground ball anyway. So I had a column about Mookie Wilson in Boston while the Red Sox were trying exorcise the curse of that ground ball. 

 


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Remarkable moments in postseason baseball - on and off the field
by Thom Loverro
Oct 17, 2014 -- 12:06pm
ESPN 980

This time of year I count my blessings for being able to have witnessed a number of remarkable moments in postseason baseball, both on and off the field. I’ve covered nine World Series and a host of League Championship Series and Division Series games for the Washington Times. Every time I do, I think back to being a kid growing up in Brooklyn and watching World Series games and thinking, “Other people go to those games. Not me.”

My first was 1993 – I covered the ALCS between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Chicago White Sox. The Blue Jays would win that series in six games and go to defend their World Championship against the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series.

What I remember from that ALCS is what happened that had nothing to do with baseball. A buzz went through the new Comiskey Park press box during game one of the series on October 5 – Michael Jordan – at the age of 30 in his prime – was retiring from baseball.

The next day I was at the Rosemont Center – the Bulls practice facility – covering this bizarre press conference, an event with questions that remain unanswered today.

The announcement cast a pall over the city, and the White Sox would go down to Toronto in six games. I remain convinced that if there had been a full 1994 season – no baseball strike – the 1994 White Sox would have won the American League pennant. It was a very talented team, led by Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura offensively, and Jack McDowell, Wilson Alvarez and Alex Fernandez on the mound.

I went on to cover the World Series that year, and yes, I was in Skydome – the name of the Toronto ballpark which had been opened for just four years (it’s called the Rogers Centre now) and was still a remarkable sight at the time, with its retractable roof – when Joe Carter hit his famous three-run game winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning off Phillies reliever Mitch Williams, with Philadelphia leading 6-5, to win the World Series. The place went crazy, with fireworks and celebrations, and the press box was frenzied with people killing their stories that had the Phillies winning and extending the series to seven games to writing about Carter’s historic home run.

That’s not my favorite game in that series, though. My favorite was game four in Philadelphia – a wild 15-14, four hour-plus nine inning game. The Vet was as loud as I’ve ever seen a ballpark, and this was the year the one-hit wonder, “Whoomp, there it is,” by Tag Team came out, and it was the theme song for that crazy – and steroid racked – Phillies team, with Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, Dave Hollins, John Kruk, Curt Schilling and others. Every time a Phillies batter got a hit, the entire ballpark would chant, “Whoomp, there it is.”

Whoomp, there it is was there early and often. Philly had a 6-0 lead after two innings, and Blue Jays starter Todd Stottlemyre was out of the game after two innings. But on the other side, Phillies starter Tommy Greene surrendered seven runs in three innings, and he was gone as well.
 

The run fest continued as Philadelphia took a 12-7 lead after two-run home runs by Dykstra and Daulton in the fifth inning. Philly led 14-9 in the eighth inning when Toronto scored six runs to take a 15-14 lead. The Blue Jays scored three of those runs off Mitch Williams, who received death threats called into Veterans Stadium before the game ended – and that was before he gave up the Joe Carter home run in game six.

Some of those death threats might have come from the press box, as writers on deadline had to change what seemed to be an easy Phillies win game story in the eighth inning into a Toronto comeback – negating much of what they had written up to that point. And, given it was the longest nine inning game in World Series history, deadlines were already strangling everybody covering the game.
 

There was no postseason in 1994 because of the baseball strike. What I remember about 1995 was covering the World Series between the Braves and Indians – Chief Wahoo vs. the Tomahawk Chop – was that I was covering two or three stories before I ever got to the park to start writing about the series. While this World Series was going on, Bill Collins made a deal to buy the Houston Astros and move them to Washington-Northern Virginia, and Orioles owner Peter Angelos was firing his general manager Roland Hemond and manager Phil Regan. So I was working those stories before Tom Glavine ever threw a pitch.
 

Then came 1996 – the bizarre scene at Camden Yards the morning of the first division series game between the Orioles and the Indians. The series came on the heels of Roberto Alomar spitting in John Hirschbeck’s face on the last weekend of the season in Toronto. Umpires were threatening to boycott the postseason unless Alomar was banned from playing.

American league president (yes, there were still American League and National League presidents back then) Gene Budig gave Alomar a five-game suspension, which would not start until the following season. That really didn't address the level of anger towards the Orioles second baseman.
 

Alomar became a national villain. It became front page news and was threatening the very American League Division Series about to start between the Orioles and the Indians. The umpires threatened not to work the game. Major League Baseball went to court that morning to get an injunction to force the umpires back to work. They also hired a crew replacement umpires which was hidden away in the auxiliary clubhouse deep in Camden Yards waiting to be called on if needed.

About 40 minutes before the game, the regular umpires were still in their hotel near Camden Yards, watching ESPN and waiting for a call from their attorney, as everyone wondered if the Alomar incident would cause the fall season to unravel.

Twenty minutes before game time, Marty Springsteen, American League supervisor of umpires, came out of the umpires room and told reporters the regular umpires would work that day. The crew arrived at the ballpark like rock stars, with cameras running in reporters jostling to get a glimpse of them. An agreement had been reached that they would hold off on their threat.

Ironically, Alomar would hit the game-winning home run in game 4 of a 12 inning, 3-3 tie to win the series for Baltimore. I vividly remember during the Orioles clubhouse celebration his brother Sandy, the Indians catcher, coming into the Orioles clubhouse to find his brother, and watching them both burst into tears as they hugged each other.

Little did I know the 1996 postseason was about to get crazier.

The Orioles would go to New York to play the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, and it was over in game one.

In the bottom of the eighth, with one out and the Orioles leading 4-3, New York's Derek Jeter hit a high drive to right field that Baltimore outfielder Tony Tarasco -- now the Washington Nationals first base coach -- took his time getting under on the warning track, standing up and waiting for the ball to come down.

Then, just like that, it disappeared.

"To me, it was a magic trick, because the ball just disappeared out of thin air," Tarasco said. "Merlin must have been in the house."

Jeter's ball turned from an out - or a double, at the very most - into a home run that tied the game at 4-4, allowing the Yankees to hang on until Bernie Williams tagged a solo shot in the bottom of the 11th off reliever Randy Myers for a 5-4 win

The magician in this case was a 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier who reached out over the wall and made the catch of a lifetime, snaring the ball in his glove before it could reach Tarasco. It was clearly fan interference. If it wasn't, then there is no reason for the rule to exist, unless fan interference applies only when a player is tackled on the field by a fan.

"The way I saw it, I thought the ball was going out of the ballpark," Garcia said. "The ball was going out of the ballpark, and I called it a home run."

 That was an illusion. The reality, shown time and time again on replays, was that the ball was not a home run, that it would have at the very least hit the wall, and Tarasco certainly believed he was going to catch the ball. Once Garcia realized he had been tricked by young Maier the Magnificent, after seeing a postgame replay, he essentially admitted he blew it.

"Obviously, after looking at the replay, it was not a home run," Garcia said. "But from what I saw, the fan reached out, not down, which, in my judgment, did not interfere with the guy catching the ball."

That was still extremely debatable. But even if that were the case, the worst that should have come out of it would have been a double for Jeter, which is what should have happened.

I saw Garcia the next morning eating breakfast at my hotel – the LaGuardia Marriott, otherwise known as the Goodfellas Marriott. He seemed hungry. Later that day for game two at Yankee Stadium, he was signing autographs for Yankee fans.

Baseball had a chance to do something courageous and unique after that. The Orioles – actually Angelos’ law firm – filed a detailed appeal seeking to have the outcome of the game overturned. The league denied the appeal, but years later, general manager Pat Gillick said it was a moment for baseball to do the right thing and they blew it. “Instead, the Yankees won the game, and this kid was a hero in New York, on television, on the back pages of the newspaper,” he told me.

My memory of the following postseason? The 1997 Orioles led the American League East wire-to-wire, only to lose to the Indians in the League Championship Series. But I have a fond memory of that postseason – game one of the Orioles division series against the Seattle Mariners.

With Randy Johnson on the mound for Seattle in the Kingdome, Orioles manager Davey Johnson benched his three best hitters – Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and B.J. Surhoff, all lefthanded hitters. Johnson started Jerome Walton for Palmeiro at first, Jeff Reboulet for Alomar at second and Jeffrey Hammonds for Surhoff in right field.

It’s the boldest postseason decision I have ever seen – and it worked.

Johnson benched 72 home runs and 258 RBI in favor of three hitters who had a combined 28 home runs and 91 RBI.

Baltimore would beat up on the fearsome Johnson with a 9-3 win to take a 1-0 lead in the Division Series. "I'll bet no one in history has ever started a playoff series by sitting down their leading home run hitter and RBI guy," general manager Pat Gillick said.

It may have been disappointing for the Orioles to fall short of a World Series appearance in those two seasons. But it was a heck of a ride, with a lot of great memories.

The Orioles would begin a 14-season losing tailspin the following year. The Times decided to cut back on its postseason baseball commitment, and I didn’t cover another postseason until 2003. That, as we know, turned out to be a memorable one, which I will pick up in part two of my postseason memories.


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Redskins have something to prove now -- that they care
by Thom Loverro
Oct 10, 2014 -- 10:53am
ESPN 980

As they say in Animal House, "Otter, this is getting serious. They're taking the bar."

You've got a Redskins team that is 1-4 and could be 1-5 by the end of the day Sunday.

This is getting serious. They're taking the season.

You lose to the Arizona Cardinals and go 1-5, you're a lot closer to that familiar point of the season for this franchise -- the point where the new head coach has to look around the locker room and see "who wants to be here and who doesn't."

Fortunately, this team may have had an epiphany of sorts last week -- thanks to the messenger.

You know the saying, "Don't blame the messenger" when it comes to the media? Well, this time you can give credit to the messenger.

This team found itself called out last week after their satisfying 27-17 loss Monday night to the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. They thought they had accomplished something, but were exposed for failing to have a true sense of themselves.

Their very essence as football players was being called into question.

That should put a giant chip on their shoulders going into this Cardinals game -- and a chip on the shoulder can be a very powerful performance enhancing substance. And since they aren't facing Russell Wilson or Eli Manning, they have an opportunity to celebrate a win instead of a loss. They have something to prove now -- that they care.


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Results vs Potential: Kirk Cousins vs RGIII
by Thom Loverro
Sep 19, 2014 -- 1:40pm
ESPN 980

We heard from Redskins Super Bowl quarterback Joe Theismann during the preseason. We heard from former NFL head coach Herm Edwards.on ESPN. If the Washington Redskins had a quarterback competition during training camp, Kirk Cousins would have beaten out Robert Griffin III. Well, we've got a quarterback competition now.

It will be Kirk Cousins results vs. Robert Griffin III potential.

Cousins results weren’t great the last time he was a starter – the last three game of the 2013 season. That’s hardly a fair comparison, since he was taking over a 3-10 team in turmoil with a coach who was on the way out the door.

Now, taking over a 1-1 team with a new coach trying to prove himself, we’ll get a real measure of just how good of an NFL quarterback Cousins is. Even last week’s outstanding performance, leading the team to a 41-10 victory over the Jaguars, has the preparation asterisk next to it – Jacksonville prepared for Griffin, not Cousins.

No asterisks this week. The Philadelphia Eagles know that Cousins will be the quarterback they are facing. So will the New York Giants, the Seattle Seahawks and every other team on the schedule for the foreseeable future.

If those results are good, it will be hard to see how the Redskins can avoid a quarterback competition. Griffin showed just enough of a taste in the early minutes of the Jacksonville game of the great RGIII, running with the ball and throwing with accuracy and confidence. The potential is still too great to ignore.

But so will the results of Kirk Cousins.


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Connecting With Fans Key To Win Against Jacksonville
by Thom Loverro
Sep 15, 2014 -- 11:37am
ESPN
 
 Someone asked Redskins head coach Jay Gruden last week about how important crowd noise might be at FedEx Field for the home opener against Jacksonville.

     "It can be and that's important for us," Gruden told reporters. "We need to strike fast and strike early. Try to get the home field in our corner and make it very difficult on Jacksonville's offense. We learned that first hand last week, how hard it is as an offense when the crowd’s into the game on every snap. With the crowd noise, the snap count becomes more difficult. We had a fumbled snap, we were late on a snap and it creates chaos for your offense when the home field crowd is against you, so it's very important for our fans to be loud and very important for us as a team to make them have something to cheer about. We have got to do something early in the game to get the people excited so we get rolling."

     It shouldn't take a question from a reporter for Jay Gruden  to recognize this. He needs to learn this lesson right away -- a lesson that Mike Shanahan never learned.
 
    Gruden needs to connect with Redskins fans.

    People will say winning will do that -- and it will, to some extent. But winning has been the exception, not the norm, at Fed Ex Field. Yet this fan base keeps showing up, week after week, year after year, sharing the connection of being a Redskins fan.

    Gruden needs to share that connection. It will help him during the tough times.

    Connecting is not just acknowledging the importance of crowd noise. It's being part of the community. It's talking passionately about the importance of fan support, and not just for the benefit of tough snap counts for the opposing team. Fans want to know that you care like they care, and that goes beyond snap counts.

    It's a great fan base that wants to fall in love with every coach who leads this team. The last guy never reached out. Gruden shouldn;t make the same mistake.

    You're not just a football coach. You're the man in charge of everyone's hopes and dreams.

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The Redskins Coaches Hall Of Fame (And Shame)
by Thom Loverro
Sep 05, 2014 -- 9:11am
ESPN 980

Washington Redskins assistant coach John Levi, left, head coach Lone Star Dietz, center, and assistant coach Egbert Ward, right, on Oct. 28, 1929. (AP Photo)

Jay Gruden is about to walk down the same path of hot coals that 26 other men have before him – the head coach of the Redskins.

So, in honor of the day Jay Gruden’s feet have caught fire and he no longer is walking down the path that others have before him, we should mark this debut with the memory of those other men, some who triumphed, some who failed.

The first coach of this franchise, when it was born in Boston in 1932, was James Ludlow Wray – otherwise known as “Lud” Wray. He lasted one season. Redskins fans should know that he would go on to be one of the founders of a future Washington rival – the Philadelphia Eagles franchise.

Then of course came the controversial Lone Star Dietz, followed by Eddie Casey. None of them were winners.

When George Preston Marshall moved the team to Washington, he hired his fourth coach in five seasons – and hit the jackpot with Ray Flaherty, who led the Redskins to two NFL championships.

Then came a procession of former Redskins players and future NFL Hall of Famers – all of them linked by their losing Redskins records – Dutch Bergman, Dudley DeGroot, Turk Edwards, John Whelchel, Herman Ball, Dick Todd, Curly Lambeau – yes, that Curley Lambeau, the former Green Bay Packers coaching great who was fired by Marshall during training camp in his second season because he let his players drink beer – Joe Kuharich, Mike Nixon and Otto Graham.

Then came Vince Lombardi, and everything changed. He said he couldn’t walk on the waters of the Potomac River, but you couldn’t prove it by Redskins fans after he led them to their first winning season in 14 years. Then, tragically, he died after just one year. Then came Bill Austin for a season, followed by the good times of George Allen. Jack Pardee fell short, and Joe Gibbs not only walked on the Potomac River, he parted the waters with four NFC championships and three Super Bowls – a pretty tough act to follow.

No one has come close since – Richie Petitbon, Norv Turner, Terry Robiskie (who stepped in as head coach after Norv's departure), Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Gibbs act two, Jim Zorn, Mike Shanahan and now, Jay Gruden.

There is a forgotten man in there, someone who was the head coach of the Washington Redskins for just a few days – Hunk Anderson, a Chicago Bears assistant under George Halas who was hired by Marshall to be the new head coach in 1951 – only to be told by Halas that he would not let Marshall hire his assistant.

Who knows? The Hunk Anderson era might have been great.


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