- The Washington Times - Friday, January 1, 2010

Somebody’s gotta do it, deliver the eulogy for The Washington Times sports section, so it might as well be me. You see, I’m the department’s Ranking Day Laborer, the first to set foot in the place in May of 1982 - almost half a life ago.

(On top of that, we Irish are great at wakes. By the time I’m done, you’ll hardly know anybody has died.)

The Times back then looked nothing like it does now. It was every inch a startup, populated by former Washington Star types who had gone down with the ship, adventurers like me who thrilled to the idea of bringing a new newspaper into the world and Unification Church members who made up in earnestness what they lacked, many of them, in journalism experience.

The newsroom, such as it was, was squeezed into a cramped space in the old Parsons Paper Co. building the Times had just bought - and was in the process of converting into the bright, glorious workplace it is today. The sports department was at the far end of the room, over by the wall of file cabinets that served as the photo library.

Doug Lamborne, a gentle soul, was the first sports editor I worked under, and Dave Fay, who would go on to become a Hall of Fame hockey writer for the Times, was his “assistant principal,” as I liked to call him. What a pair.

Putting out the paper in those days could test the resolve of the most grizzled newspaper veteran. For one thing, the computer system, previously owned by the Star, was prone to crashes. For another, the main computer was located off-site… way off-site - in New York, in fact, where the church had another paper.

So whenever a story was processed - edited, fit with a headline, set in column format, etc. - it took a 500-mile round trip to the Big Apple. Often, the story that came back bore only a passing resemblance to the original. Chunks of text would be missing. Scores of random punctuation marks would be sprinkled throughout the copy.

It was enough to drive an editor to drink. Not that Doug and Dave ever called it that. They never said, “We’re going out for a couple of pops,” after the system went down “indefinitely” or the dastardly computer in New York undid their painstaking labor in Washington. Instead, they spoke in code.

“You wanna go down to the Holiday Inn?” Dave would say. And in the hotel bar they would decompress, return with rolled-up sleeves and renewed purpose and miraculously pull together another sports section.

The heroic legacy of the department’s Founding Fathers lived on, you’ll be pleased to know - right to the very end. Remember that light dusting we got earlier this month, the one that made roads nigh impassable and turned the District into Ice Station Zebra? It certainly didn’t stop Times desk guy Drew Hansen, our intrepid Wisconsinite, from skidding into work and putting out the Dec. 20 section by himself - with help from homebound Steve Whyno, Jon Fogg, Teshia Morris and Mike Fratto. (I’m assuming our other deskfolk - Mike Petre, David Gill and the ever-reliable Steve Repsher - were too busy delivering hot chocolate to the elderly.)

When I called the desk that afternoon, curious to see if we were even going to have a paper the next day, Drew picked up on the second ring. “I’ve driven in worse stuff than this,” he said. “But if I get stuck here overnight, I’ve got an inflatable mattress I can sleep on.”

(At which point my mind drifted back to Marty Hurney - then our Redskins beat man, now the general manager of the Carolina Panthers - snoozing under his desk in a sleeping bag during our round-the-clock efforts to put out a Times Super Bowl book in 1983, after the Redskins beat the Dolphins.)

But then, toiling for the Times sports section always required a strong constitution. As the second paper in town - think Fay Wray to the Post’s King Kong - we never had anything handed to us. Everything we got - news breaks, respect, awards - we earned, usually the hard way. And if you doubt this, as the saying goes, come and put your hands in my wounds.

Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about: During my brief stint as a beat reporter, I lost two major exclusives because the team publicists found out what I was working on and informed the Post. “Gotta protect my main news outlet,” one of them told me.

As irony would have it, the sports department is disappearing at a time when, frankly, it’s never been better. The reporting, writing, editing, headlines, page design, Web site, photography (courtesy of Joe Silverman, Peter Lockley and Michael Connor) - trust me, this is easily the best product we’ve ever put out.

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