I’m sitting in the press box at Jack Murphy Stadium for the first time as a member of the “working press ” watching the Padres getting whacked by the Expos. It’s 1982. The Padres stink. Dick Williams is their manager.
I’m there with a flimsy tape recorder to get quotes from ballplayers for the UCSD campus radio station that no one listens to. Sportswriters are all around me, middle-aged white men in ties and nice sweaters. Everyone’s talking and laughing and scribbling in spiral notebooks and wolfing free popcorn and drinking free beer. Except me. I’m just some punk college kid frozen in his seat, nervous as hell.
The game ends on a strikeout, and the writers scramble from their seats and blow down the hall, around the comer to the elevator. I catch up just in time to squeeze in, and down we go. Everyone gets quiet.
The doors slide open and I’m the first one out. It’s a dark corridor. Where the hell are we? I step to the side, faking that I have to check my tape recorder, to let the sportswriters slip by. They move down the corridor in a pack, and I join them from behind. We turn right, then left, and arrive at a closed blue door above which it says “Padres Baseball Club.” After a minute the door opens and we step inside.
It’s a big, brightly lit room. The air is hot and soggy. Guys are sitting around half naked. A few sportswriters fan out to the players, but about ten of them go through a doorway to the right. I follow. It’s a small room lined with chairs and a long couch. The manager’s office.
The writers quickly take seats until there’s nothing left but a small space at the end of the couch. I make my way over and sit down. In front of me is a large desk and chair. It must be the manager’s, which is perfect for me since I need to get quotes with my tape recorder. I notice I’m the only one in the room with a microphone. Everyone else is sitting with a pen and notepad. Where are all the radio station reporters, I wonder?
In a side doorway a figure appears. He is wearing long underwear. He walks in holding a can of Schlitz beer. He has gray hair and deep lines in his face. It’s Dick Williams.
I knew nothing about Dick Williams to this point except that he managed the Oakland A’s to a couple of World Series titles in the early ’70s and he was among my heroes.
Williams grunts a little as he slowly sits down in his chair. He takes a big gulp of beer and then belches. No one says a word. Williams stares at his desk. Without looking up he takes another swig of beer. I can’t figure it out. Why isn’t anyone saying anything? Williams burps again. He’s two feet away from me. I’m so nervous I could puke.
“Uh, Dick,” someone finally mutters.
I get my tape recorder ready.
“Uh, Dick, did Ruppert miss a sign off first base in the fifth?”
I click on my recorder as Williams clears his throat, and I push the mike up near his mouth.
“What the fuck?” he says, staring at the microphone.
“What the fuck is this?” he says even louder. Then he snaps his head around and glares at me.
“Who the fuck are you?” he yells. “Who the fuck are you!”
My whole body freezes. I try to answer. “I’m-I’m-J-J-Jeff Saa— ”
“Who the fuck are you?” he yells again. Then he just explodes. “Get the fuck outta here! Get the fuck outta this office!”
I lift myself from the couch as Williams springs from his chair. The other reporters are dead-still. “Goddamnit!” he screams as he points at the door. “Get the fuck outta here!”
I crash over ankles and feet as I bolt from the office, out the locker room, and up the corridor to the elevator.
“Press box?” the elevator operator asks as I step in. “No,” I say with my heart pounding. “First level.”
I flee from the stadium to my car without looking back.
I never should have gone back to the Murph. Ever. Instead, it became a big part of my life. I was thrilled with sports and athletes, so I got a job as a sportswriter at the San Diego Tribune. I lasted eight years in the business. I finally wised up and quit in 1992.
Guys think sports writing is a cool job. Free games. Free food. Conversations with athletes. What could be better? Trust me, the job stinks. The hours tear you down and the deadline pressure beats in your head. Editors can make the job especially miserable. Above all, most athletes are insufferable assholes.
When David Hirshey, a sportswriter for the New York Daily News in the ’70s, learned that Reggie Jackson of the Yankees fantasized about singing with the O’Jays, he decided to write a story about it. “I walked up to him at his locker,” Hirshey said, “and asked, ‘Reggie, I know you can carry a team. Can you carry a tune?’ ” Jackson turned around, lifted a leg, farted, and said, “How’s this tune?” Shortly thereafter, Hirshey left sports writing.
An athlete never farted on me. I was lucky.
To get locker room quotes on game day, you have to be very careful where you position yourself. It’s especially tough after a Raiders or Rams game in L.A., with the media cramming in. A player sits naked on a stool in front of his cubicle, toweling off from a shower, and you’re squeezed in with 20 other fools straining to hear him mutter, “We never shoulda lost” or “The ref blew the call.” Your face is buried in another reporter’s greasy hair, the guys pressing you from the sides have B.O., and you’re getting banged from behind by a television camera. Worse is when you’re in the front of this scrum and there’s a push from behind and it takes all the leg strength you’ve got to maintain your stance. I’ve seen guys fall onto players. I’ve seen players get pissed.