Bleacher Seats Splinters

With one enormous glass ceiling finally shattered by women last month, it’s time to break down the last remaining one: understanding why men love sports so much.

So this is to you, my fair ladies, who have spent your lives sometimes perplexed, sometimes angry and often feeling isolated as your husband/son/father/grandfather spent seemingly every free second of their lives sitting in an easy chair or a couch in front of a TV, watching other men running around chasing, throwing or hitting different shaped balls … or each other.

The inspiration for this journey, which frankly discloses my own behavior for decades as well as literally hundreds of other men I’ve known, was the seventh game of last month’s World Series, won by the Chicago Cubs over the Cleveland Indians.

The Series didn’t evoke strong emotions for me because it was played between 2 teams I neither root for or against. Most of the first 6 games were long and boring. But the 7th game built to a crescendo that captivated and satisfied as the experience spread from late into the night into early the next morning.

This game had an epic comeback to tie the game by the Indians in a no-hope-at-all situation. Ninth-inning heroics didn’t materialize. As the game went into extra innings, as if the fans needed a pause to reset their emotions, heavy rain started falling and the game was delayed. When it restarted, Chicago scored twice and the hero was a mostly anonymous pinch-runner whose smarts and hustle led to 2 runs. The Indians didn’t go quietly and pushed a run across before finally dying heroically.

For Chicagoans, it ended a 108-year drought without a World Series title, setting off massive emotional celebrations that you didn’t have to be a Cubs fan to understand and appreciate. And thus this event is prototypical of why sports reflects the human spirit and we men sit in the easy chair or on the couch waiting for the next magical moment.

Let me break down the reasons why, so you better understand:

1. It’s real. Sports is reality television at its best. It’s in real time. No scripts. No directors. The outcome is final and fulfilling.

2. It’s human. The experience of playing sports is universal. While almost all of us cannot compete at that level, we all understand and appreciate the skills on display. We understand the elation of victory and the harshness of defeat. All events include mistakes made by the players, the coaches, the referees and even the announcers.

3. It’s our heritage. Most of us religiously root for the teams our parents and grandparents rooted for. Most of us pass that passion down to the next generation. And thus we are connected to the past and the future.

4. It’s historic. Few of the events we watch are on the epic level of a World Series 7th game. But collectively, every game we watch can create an emotion or a memory. A seemingly mundane event can turn significant with a fantastic finish, a never- seen-before play or a long-standing record broken.

5. It’s exciting. When I watch sports, most often I’m quiet no matter what the situation. If I yell, it’s generally at an incompetent referee or TV announcer.

But inside I get insanely nervous. I’ve been with others who constantly yell at the TV over almost every play. No matter how you display your passion the need to feel passion is addictive and doesn’t fade as you age.

6. It’s a path to communication. In my experience, women are more likely to connect more quickly, more openly and more easily than men. Sports is one of the simplest ways for men to bond and sometimes the only way.

So, the next time you look at a favorite man sitting transfixed on the TV and you know it’s a hopeless task to try to reach him, at least you’ll know why. But you should ask yourself, would it be so bad to join him?

If you want to give it a try, here’s my advice. Just learn the basics. You probably know most of them already. Don’t concern yourself with knowing intricate rules and strategies. You don’t have to know the infield fly rule (baseball) or the pick and roll (basketball). You can always learn in the future with his guidance.

Do concern yourself with the human element of sports. Learn about the players and the coaches; knowing their strengths and weaknesses, their back stories, their accomplishments and setbacks and seeing how they perform is what makes each game special.

I used to detest the sport of soccer as boring and repetitive. Seven years ago I started following Inter Milan and became as passionate about the team as any other I’ve rooted for. I don’t like the sport much more than I used to but I watch it regularly. I got to know the players. I can judge when they do well and do poorly. I even care enough to yell at the referees and the announcers.

I just don’t know anybody at Aberdeen who’ll watch it with me. But you don’t have that problem.

You don’t need to spend another weekend afternoon alone. Get your own easy chair. Grab a seat on the couch. Yell or don’t yell at the TV. Let yourself get nervous. You’ve already found your passion, so go sit next to him.

Bleacher Seats Splinters

Sports has given me a career, an unbreakable bond with my son, moments of joy never to be forgotten, catastrophic gut-punches of defeat that (immaturely) fracture the soul like losing a family member and a very special friendship that’s lasted a decade and spanned an ocean.

This tale starts outside Bologna, Italy at Gianni Falchi baseball stadium in August 2007. A young Italian man takes a photo of my son after the first game. But something about this Italian and his slightly-. fractured English draws me to him immediately. He is, I determine quickly, the most knowledgeable sports fan I’ve ever met as we talk about all American sports, international auto racing and, of course, soccer.

When game 2 starts at 9 AM that Saturday, the young man pulls out a baseball scorebook and keeps score, something I rarely see in U. S. parks. When the Fortitudo (home team) pitcher strikes out a batter, he is prepared with laminated forward and backward Ks that he tapes to a
nearby railing. I point to the several hundred other fans in the stands and say, “Afro, do these people understand what these [Ks] are for?” “They don’t understand anything,” he shoots back at me and I realize he has a NY  sense of humor on top of everything.

We exchange email addresses and Afro, my son Andrew, and I have been teammates in love with sports ever since. Afro and I co-manage an NFL fantasy team. He taught us to love soccer and we’re immaturely over-passionate about his Inter Milan team that the three of us talk and text endlessly about.

He visited us a year later and we took him to Shea and Yankee stadiums, Fenway Park, games in Philly and Baltimore, museums and Blue Man Group. He was there to witness a classic moment in family history. On the way to Fenway, we stopped at Dunkin Donuts for breakfast. We ate in the car and when I peeked at the receipt and saw a 79-cent charge for a Plain Bag. I had a monumental temper tantrum about the ridiculous cost. As I threatened to sue Dunkin for every donut hole they had, my wife Bonnie grabbed the receipt, read and bellowed over my whining, “That’s not a Plain Bag, idiot; that’s for a Plain Bagel.”

The laughter that filled the car, including my own, lasted all day. When relating the incident that night to his sister, Andrew was literally rolling on the floor and Afro was roaring as well. This young man who mostly learned his English from American TV and sports on TV understood the nuance and the comedy.

In 2011, we made our way back to Italy to see our beloved Inter play soccer at Milan’s Giuseppe Meazza Stadium. Afro was our guide from Lake Como to Parma for 9 days that couldn’t have been better.

Afro came to Aberdeen in late September. That we went to two Mets-Marlins games should be of no surprise. He went to his first college football game and even three lightning delays in the Ball State at Florida Atlantic contest didn’t sap his enthusiasm for the event. We also went to a Park Vista High School football game, where the highlight wasn’t the dramatic victory for the home side against Atlantic but the amazing halftime performance by the Park Vista Performers. Afro and I urge you to go out to a Friday night game to see the wonderful band, dancers and cheerleaders.

The athletic highlight of his visit belongs to my Bermuda Isle neighbor/Marshall Williams, who invited us to go bowling in Greenacres. Afro, in his second bowling experience, and I watched in awe as Marshall strung together 12 strikes from the middle of the first game to the middle of the second. A virtual 300 game! What Afro couldn’t understand on the way home, and I don’t think it was trouble with his English, was why Marsh insisted he needed a new bowling ball an hour after that magnificent feat.

Afro loved Aberdeen and South Florida and best of all, we did some online research and discovered that as an NAV software programmer he could earn enough money to move here with his girlfriend fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming an American.

It was sad to take the young man, who I think of as my Italian son, to the airport after 12 wonderful days. But the three of us will be together again soon. Just before Christmas, Andrew and I are flying to Florence, where Afro will pick us up and we’ll head immediately to a Fiorentina-Napoli soccer game. Then we’ll spend Christmas Eve Mass, Christmas Day and a few days at Afro’s 90-year-old grandfather’s apartment, his father’s butcher shop and his mother’s restaurant in or near the tiny town of Baragazza, in the hills of Tuscany midway between Florence and Bologna.

I can’t wait to meet them, learn more about Afro and pray to the sports gods for what they’ve given me.

Bleacher Seats Splinters

By: Rob Tanenbaum

As my passion and occupation, sports has been a dominant element in my life. Yet the transformation of sports from live entertainment to big business evaporates much of the joy.

Every sport has been affected by dollar signs. Every level of every sport suffers. It’s not just professional sports anymore. College sports are cancerous. International soccer is a shameful example of how money tarnishes athletics. The Olympics are a sham of individual and national cheating and have been since Hitler and Avery Brundage poisoned them in 1936. And high school and youth sports are being corrupted by money as well as overzealous parents looking to produce superstar kids and live off them.

As a fan, I remain seduced by the often-compelling human drama that often evolves. This spring’s Masters golf tournament is an example. I’m still hooked on baseball, European soccer and golf. But I rarely watch basketball, tennis and hockey anymore and I really hope to cast aside football.

My biggest gripe is with baseball. My attitude is that baseball should know better. It’s the team game that led the sports revolution in the 1920s when boxing and horse racing were the major competitions. Baseball gave us the World Series so America could always think it was best. Baseball gave us Jackie Robinson so America could always think it wasn’t racist. Baseball gave us numbers like 56 and 60 and 511 and 714 that became ingrained in Americana and set metrics for our lives well before we knew the word “metrics.”

Now what does baseball give us? Mostly cheaters. Yes, there were cheaters 100 years ago too. The pitchers threw spitballs. The batters altered their bats. The runners sharpened their metal spikes. But those were insider deceptions and the players governed themselves — mostly by pitchers throwing beanballs or an occasional free-for-all fracas on the field.

Today’s cheaters alter their bodies and dishonor the game, its numbers and themselves. And, of course, they could care less. They still get more money each year than most of us see in a lifetime.

The most recent cheater to be unmasked is Dee Gordon. South Florida baseball fans, no matter whom they root for, know him well. He plays second base for the Miami Marlins. We all were so proud of him on the last day of last season when he beat out bad-boy superstar Bryce Harper for the National League batting championship, Yes, Dee, the son of major league pitcher Tom Gordon from Avon Park, FL, which is about two hours away by car, took performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) so that his 170-pound body was strong enough to win a batting title. Then he signed a $50 million contract during the off-season and, having scored the big money, foolishly continued to cheat, thinking he couldn’t get caught.

Gordon, in reality, ain’t so stupid. He’ll be docked a pittance for the standard 80-game suspension. Current major leaguers Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta, Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon also signed enormous contracts after being outed as PED-users. When Gordon returns to the Marlins lineup on or after July 28, he’ll be greeted as a hero as were Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, all among the large group of superstar cheaters.

The baseball owners and the union talk a good game about stamping out cheating but, in fact, they condone it, allowing these players in the game and a path to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Baseball also offers a convenient excuse for the players to cheat. Did you realize that baseball squeezes each team’s 162-game schedule into a 183-day date range? And the scheduling also includes many multiple-time-zone road trips without a day off. Man, doesn’t your heart bleed for these entitled brats – especially considering that the average baseball salary today is above $4 million?

This situation of cheating-pays is going to get far worse in sports. In fact, it’s already a disaster in pro football. Who’s going to do something about it? The players and owners? No way. They’re making too much easy money. The government? Well, Congress has stuck its nose in big business sports in the past but just enough so be repelled by the hideous odor and duck into a dark corner.

There’s only one group that can save sports from itself and it’s you and me. Enough fans have to be a Howard Beale and raise the window and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Enough fans have to stop going to games, watching games on cable or buying licensed gear so the money- grabbing Ivy-educated MBAs and lawyers in the Commissioner’s office and the sports networks get the message.

The odds of that happening are greater than me taking PEDs and winning a batting title. Yet, if such a grassroots movement of angry, aware fans was started, I promise you I’d be the first to join. Passion be damned.

Bleacher Seats Splinters

The drives are grueling. The days are long and very hot. The nights are endless and sometimes uncomfortable. Yet, the reward at the end of this road is incalculable.

I’m urging you, actually imploring you, to hit the road this summer and take a baseball road trip with your children, grandchildren or both. I’ve done it numerous times and collected adventures and memories along the way. Best of all, I forged an unbreakable bond with my son.

Our baseball trip adventures took almost a decade to complete.

We’ve been to every Major League Baseball park, about a dozen minor league parks and one in Italy. We’ve traveled by auto, airplane, train and boat to get to the parks.

It started with my wife justifiably cursing at me. I showed her the details of the first multi-ballpark trip I planned in 2002 that started in New York, with stops in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Binghamton (minor league game) before ending at Shea Stadium back in New York. My wife’s reaction! “You’ve made me plan every summer vacation for the last 15 years and never helped once, but this you can do,” she said with indignity that still makes me shutter. “I’m sorry. I won’t go,” I said ashamedly, “we don’t have the money anyway.” “Oh yes we do and you are going. End of discussion.”

We called her from every stadium just before the National Anthem to check in. I got teary-eyed at every “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” thinking of her sacrifice. But my son and I made the most of every minute. We listened to books on tape along the way. We collected mini bats and pins from every stadium and had a photo taken of us with the scoreboard in the background. All are on display in my den in Bermuda Isle. We visited state capitals, national parks, museums and major college campuses when there was time.

We met many colorful characters on the road like the grandfather sitting next to me in Pittsburgh who’d played college football against Johnny Unitas and Mike Ditka at the University of Cincinnati but who quit the baseball team after one training session because he knew he’d never beat out another left-hander for a starting pitcher’s spot. The other pitcher was Sandy Koufax.

Oh, the memories. I remember sitting in left field during batting practice in the Minneapolis ball park called the Homer Dome while home runs fell in every section except ours. We lamented never getting a ball in the stands and estimated we’d been to 100-120 games together. Soon we were in our third baseline seats. The 20 seats to our right were still empty. This was important because Toronto first baseman Lyle Overbay sliced Matt Garza’s pitch foul about 10 seats to my son’s right. It bounced twice and then right into his hands. The Holy Grail was ours! And I can still feel the hug that they showed on the huge stadium scoreboard.

So go and make memories like that this summer. And here I am to help. It took about an hour to research and design a super trip for this July right after the All-Star break. What I put together is a maximum see-it-all 17-day driving trip to 14 parks in the east and midwest. That’s almost half the MLB parks. Here’s your Triptik beginning Fri., July 15.

The calculations: 4,060 miles at 59 hours, 8 minutes in stadium-to-stadium distance and driving times, according to Google Maps. At 27 miles per gallon, you’d use 150 gallons of gasoline. If the summer price rises to an average $2.25, figure about $350 for fuel. Fifteen hotel rooms at $150 would come to $2,250. Fourteen tickets for three getting $30 seats would be $1,400. Total without food, souvenirs, etc. rounds out to a $4,000 trip for 2.5 weeks. Of course, you could add a game in Baltimore on Day 19 and continue to Atlanta, Tampa and Miami on the way home to Aberdeen.

My son and I recall the details of the trips, games and players frequently. It’s part of our shared experience. He met friends I reconnected with in St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Francisco and Seattle and family in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. He saw where I went to college and had my first job. We argue about which was the best ballpark and the worst. The best ballpark food and the worst. And we enjoy the irony that when we finished our “cycle” of major parks in 2009 at Coors Field in Denver, the Rockies’ shortstop Troy Tulowitzki paid homage by getting for a “cycle” (single, double, triple and a home run in same game).

I’m not finished with baseball road trips either. My son and I will go to the new Miami park this season and I’d like to tour the Florida State League parks this summer and next. But the real treat will be when my grandsons are old enough to go on the road. Let the bonding begin.

Bleacher Seats Splinters

By: Bob Tanenbaum

I’m starting to breathe easily again. At last, blood is flowing to my brain. The fog is lifting. In other words, baseball’s almost here.

I die every November and am resurrected on or around the eve of Opening Day. Fifteen box scores to digest almost every day. Now that’s living. How much do I love baseball?

Well, my son and I have been to every major league park and one in Italy. I own 50+ baseball ties. I have a piece of the Shea Stadium wall in my garage. I have a mascot bobble head doll for each team and use them to keep up-to-date standings throughout the season.

Also, I know everything you need to know for the upcoming season and I’m willing to share.

I’ve grouped the teams in 5 tiers – starting with the most likely to be playing into early November (and, for context, compared them to the contenders for November’s other major contest). Group 1:
The Front Runners (AKA the Clinton/Trump Division) The Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 (some of you may remember it; if not read “Crazy ‘08” by Cait Murphy) but Vegas thinks this is their year. Chicago has wisely added quality veterans (OF Jason Heyward, 2B Ben Zobrist, SP John Lackey and P Adam Warren) to his collection of young homegrown superstars.

Yikes!
The Los Angeles Dodgers didn’t go on their usual spending spree even after losing ace pitcher Zach Grienke to Arizona. Sure, they bought Scott Kazmir as a rotation replacement and re-upped Howie Kendrick at $20M for two years. Why not spend more? LA has three can’t-miss rookies (SS Corey Seager, 2B Jose Peraza and SP Julio Urias, 19, who has a left eye that’s partially shut and a left arm that shuts down batters.) Double Yikes!!

The New York Mets make this group thanks to a starting rotation that carried the team to the World Series last fall and now has rookie Stephen Matz for a full season and will welcome back ace-quality starter Zach Wheeler in midseason. Re-signing September hero Yoenis Cespedes was a must. The Cuban refugee outfielder owns a collection of outlandishly expensive cars that you should watch for on 1-95 since he keeps some of them at his Bocaire CC mansion in Boca. One Yikes.

The Mets blew past the Washington Nationals in the stretch but the Nats will rebound with baseball’s best player Bryce Harper carrying the team despite the loss of quality starters, Jordan Zimmerman and Doug Fister. Management wised up and dumped dunderhead manager Matt Williams and hired a real skipper in Dusty Baker. The move is worth 5-10 wins.

The reigning-champion Kansas City Royals are too solid and complete a franchise to underrate. Their key move was re-signing OF Alex Gordon. They have a knack at rehabbing pitchers and will try again with SP Ian Kennedy and RP Joachim Soria. One Yikes plus.

Last, and least of this group, is the New York Yankees. While swearing off on big-time contracts, they couldn’t resist adding a third closer – legally challenged (domestic violence) 100 MPH thrower Aroldis Chapman — to their overcrowded bullpen and almost All-Star quality infielder Starlin Castro to the lineup. The key could be a rookie outfielder named Aaron Judge. He’s about 6-foot-7 and drawing comparisons to Dave Winfield. If that happens and A-Rod continues to cheat without getting caught, give ‘em a half-Yikes.

Group 2:
The Secondary Contenders (AKA The Sanders/Cruz/Rubio Division)

The Toronto Blue Jays because they are the best-hitting team in baseball.

The St. Louis Cardinals because they always rebuild into a better team with an amazing farm system and clever trades — this time former Padre 2B Jedd Gyorko.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been knocking on the door for a half-decade now in the NL Central and now they’ll have two doors to blow down: Cubs and Cards. But don’t say it can’t happen. Phenom rookie starter Tyler Glasnow could be the catalyst.

Count the San Francisco Giants in this group, if only because of history. The Giants have won it all in 2010, 2012 and 2014. Get the pattern? Injuries have blown apart a solid rotation so they brought in starters Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to return to glory.

No person has had a greater impact on the game over the past 25 years than Tony LaRussa. The former manager now pulls strings as the Chief Baseball Officer of the Arizona Diamondbacks. LaRussa pushed the mostly homegrown Snakes to sign the winter’s No.1 free agent SP Zack Greinke from LA. They’d be a favorite for the NL West crown if not for LA and SF.

Based on a strong starting rotation you’ve heard little about (2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar) the Cleveland Indians will be this season’s dark horses du jour.

Group 3
“So You’re Saying There’s A Chance?” (AKA the Carson/Kasich Division)

Last place; last place; World Series Champions; last place. That’s what the Boston Red Sox have accomplished the last four years. Based on offseason moves that equal or surpass the Cubs, Beantown could be rocking again. Arriving is ace starter David Price and baseball’s most consistent closer Craig Kimbrel. If offensive and defensive inconsistencies are solved, we may have to give them a Yikes!

The Detroit Tigers have a solid offensive nucleus and have added SP Jordan Zimmermann and OF Justin Upton.

The surprising Minnesota Twins missed the playoffs by only three games last year. They could make up the difference if rookies OF Bryon Buxton and SP Jose Berrios live up to expectations.

The Houston Astros, last season’s division champs, are loaded with young talent, suspect starters and a possible black hole at first base.

The annually underachieving Los Angeles Angels surprised by not spending big on free agents but brought in Andrelton Simmons, a defensive genius at shortstop, to bring cohesion to a star-dotted lineup that’s lost its way. The Texas Rangers could be the surprise of the bunch based on rookies 3B Joey Gallo and OF Nomar Mazara.

Group 4:
Never Taken Seriously (AKA the Jeb/Christie/Fiorina/Huckabee Division)

This group of teams has little chance at a playoff spot, but they might have hope for relevance. Not the Chicago White Sox despite adding slugger Todd Frazier. Not the Miami Marlins despite the league’s No.1 slugger, Giancarlo Stanton, and arguably No.1 young starter, Jose Fernandez; not the Baltimore Orioles despite re-signing stars 1B Chris Davis, C Matt Weiters and RP Darren O’Day. Not the Seattle Mariners despite pitching ace “King” Felix Hernandez; not the Tampa Bay Rays, who have sold or traded almost all their young stars; not the San Diego Padres, who spent a fortune last season and are left with a manager and players we’ve never heard of.

Group 5:
Why even show up? (AKA the Pataki/Chaffee/Jindal/O’Malley Division)

These teams are worse than the Padres. They have no shot at a .500 season. If you root for them, you can starting waiting for next year now. Philadelphia Phillies; Atlanta Braves, Oakland Athletics, Colorado Rockies, Cincinnati Reds.

Final Predictions:
So what will happen? I want what I wanted last year. Blue Jays vs. Mets in the World Series. Best hitting vs. best pitching with lots of errors when the ball’s in play and not blasted into the seats. Mets in seven.

Bleacher Seats Splinters

Pete Adkins is the greatest football coach you’ve never heard of. When I tried to tell that to the people who knew him best, boy, did I get in a lot of trouble. The time was 45 years ago. The place was a town in central Missouri not south of any border called Mexico. The population today is close to what is was (about 11,000) and it once proudly called itself “The Saddle Horse Capitol of the World.”

As sports editor of the Mexico Ledger, I wrote stories, headlines and captions, took photographs, edited my own stories and pasted the offset printing type on the sports page 6 mornings a week. It’s also where I invented my nom de plume: Mexico Moe.

Moe predicted NFL games every Friday and held a contest to see if Mexicoans (that’s what they called themselves) could outguess him. Moe’s post-weekend wrap-up would lament each of his losses squarely blaming a player, coach or referee for his imperfections. Each Mexico Moe story had a picture of me, shot from behind, sitting with my feet stretched high on the desktop, wearing a fedora to hide my head that was turned slightly to the side so my face wasn’t visible but the long stogie in my mouth was. My mother hated that picture.

Mexicoans loved Moe. What I didn’t know was how much they hated me.

Mexico High School was a medium-sized school that played in a conference with many bigger schools. They had talent, a small-town, farm-area attitude of not giving up and wonderful coaching, but couldn’t compete with perennial state champ Jefferson City, which was bigger, badder and coached by Adkins.

As a preview to the Friday night game, I sought out Adkins, got an interview, put together a story and even got a picture of him from his mother, who lived a half- block away from the newspaper office. Yes, Pete Adkins was a born and bred Mexicoan. It was a nice article detailing his many accomplishments, his nice thoughts about Mexico and how we wanted to coach there earlier in his career. He said many complimentary things about the Mexico football team and coaching staff.

What could go wrong? By 8 AM the day of the game, less than 3 hours after Ledgers landed on driveways, I knew. The town hated Adkins with a passion. Many readers called the managing editor to complain and alleged Adkins smacked his players on the helmet when coaching nearby Centralia High School earlier in his career. He’d wanted Mexico, but Mexico proudly wanted no part of him.

In the supermarket later that morning and the football field when I arrived at the game, all my small-town friends turned cold. They pretended not to see me. The supermarket’s owner, whose son was the team’s best lineman, approached me and told me to buy my food quickly and get out of his store.

Jefferson City defeated Mexico that night, but not soundly. The Bulldogs fought proudly and gave the winners a challenge for the first time in 2 decades. As the teams left the field and I went to the Jeff City school bus to interview Adkins after the game, several Mexicoans let me know what they thought of me. At least, I thought I knew.

I found out the whole truth a year later. When I finally got a new job in Bucks County, Pa., the first person I called to tell the good news was a man who was like a father to me in town. His name was Bud Hotop. He was a kind, jovial man who sold insurance. His two sons, Doug and Chris, were among the better players on the team. Bud immediately asked me to come to his office.

I’d never been there before. I’d been the basement in his house on many, many Saturday nights while his children were out roaming the town square. We watched “Mary Tyler Moore” and drank Harvey Wallbangers. For introducing him to HWs, as we called them, Bud would drive me to all the away football and basketball games so that I could claim the driving expense money. Most of Mexico’s road trips were really long and this helped supplement my $105 (pre-tax)-a-week paycheck.

In the office, Bud got right to the point with me. “Remember the weekend of the Jeff City game last year?” he began, “well, you don’t know how close you came …” And his voice trailed off.

“You were going to be tarred and feathered. Really tarred and feathered. I’m not exaggerating. The night after the game there was a quickly called town meeting. It was like a lynch party. Many of them wanted to get you. They finally settled on tar and feathering you. That’s when I got up and spoke. Several of the other football fathers (including the supermarket owner) backed me up and everyone settled down and nothing happened.”

I was so in shock that I’m sure the magnitude of what almost happened never really settled in my mind as Bud was talking. Before it did, he continued. “I’ve lived my entire life in small towns,” Bud continued, “in fact, Mexico is by far the largest town I’ve lived in. And if I learned something about life in a small town it’s that once your name is mud, once you’ve made your way into the gutter, no one gets out. I mean no one. “Until you,” he said. “You are the first person who got a bad, bad reputation in a small town and within a year did so much that the people in this town love you. Many are going to be upset when they hear that you are leaving. I can’t wait to go to the coffee shop tomorrow morning and tell the people who wanted to tar and feather you and see the sad looks on their faces. You earned their trust by writing about their children with warmth and appreciation like we haven’t seen before and we’ll never see again. “You did something I never thought I’d see happen. You should be really proud.”

Bud hit me with a gut punch that almost floored me and followed with a blow to the head that woke me up. Looking back at it I wonder what kind of a reporter I was to not know that I was a) hated so much and b) admired so much. (Aside: I did call Adkins the week after the game and said the Centralia story was a lie that grew out of proportion because he went to Jefferson City instead of Mexico.)

What might have changed the tide was a couple of weeks after the Jeff City loss, Mexico went to Columbia Hickman High School and pulled a major upset. After the game, Hickman students threw eggs at the school bus as it pulled away. I included that in the game story and the headline was: “Mexico upsets Hickman; the yolks on them.”

After I left Mexico, I didn’t go back until a baseball stadiums trip I took with my son in 2006. On our way from St. Louis to Kansas City we spent an afternoon in Mexico. At the office, a football field from the former home of Pete Adkins mother, I stared in awe at the place that hadn’t changed and met the current sport editor who had replaced me 35 years earlier. He told me the stories about all the players and coaches I could remember and some that I didn’t. Bud had moved away about 8 years earlier to live with his older son, and died a couple of years later.

But Chris, who I got named to the All-State team, was managing the Sears store next to the Dairy Queen we’d already chosen for lunch. We stopped by and told Chris the whole story. He’d never heard it. He promised to tell it to his brother and sister and to let them know that for 3 decades I’d carried the goodness of their father within me.

My son and I went to the Dairy Queen, ordered and sat down in a booth opposite each other. A minute later we were both sobbing, just like I am now.

Pete Adkins facts: retired as winningest high school coach in U.S. history with a record of 405- 60-4. Currently he’s eighth all-time. Centralia 51-12-2; Jefferson 341-18-2 from 1958-93 with 14 perfect seasons, one losing season and eight state titles.

Mexico, Mo., facts: Founded as New Mexico in 1836 as a stop for settlers heading to Texas. My boss at The Ledger was Robert M. White, who was MacArthur’s press liaison during WWII, one-time editor of New York Herald Tribune and accompanied Nixon on ground-breaking trip to China. His father said this about the naming of the town: “The first settlers found a wooden sign along the trail. It pointed southwest and on it had been painted Mexico. To avoid unnecessary labor, the sign was left in place. “It was easier to call their town ‘Mexico’ than to take down the old sign.” Let’s talk sports! Contact me at mexicomoe@gmail.com.

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