Farewell, and thanks

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This is the blog post I hoped never to have to write.

Alas, what has been speculated for the last month is now official: The Washington Times is eliminating its sports section, and I (along with about two dozen other colleagues from this department) and countless others from elsewhere in the company have been laid off. Our final print sports section (featuring some commemorative articles and photos) will run in Friday’s paper. Happy New Year, indeed.

This development did not come totally out of the blue. We’ve been on pins and needles since late-November, when we were all informed at least 40 percent of the company would be laid off in the coming months as the Times sought to “refashion” itself as a specialized news operation, focusing primarily on politics and investigative reporting. It was immediately clear sports would not be part of the new-look newspaper, at least not in any kind of substantial form.

That didn’t make the official news today any easier to swallow. The words still sting as much as anything I’ve ever been told in my life. Not because I’m scared about trying to find new employment (though I am). No, the most excruciating aspect of this news is the stark realization that comes with it: Neither I nor most of my two dozen colleagues are likely to ever cover sports for a newspaper again. The business is shriveling up, and it may not be long before it ceases to exist at all.

Some kids grow up wanting to be professional athletes or astronauts or doctors or actors or musicians. I’ve never wanted to be anything other than a newspaper sportswriter. As a 5-year-old, I read the sports section every morning, fascinated by standings and box scores. As a fourth grader, I created a monthly classroom newspaper, complete with scores from the soccer games during recess. I was editor of my high school paper and delighted in standing on the sidelines each Friday night during football games, keeping stats while everyone else rooted from the bleachers. I went to Northwestern University not for the top-flight education but to learn how to be a sportswriter, a far more valuable (and enjoyable) experience.

And I came to the Washington Times in 2001 because I was offered my dream job: to cover major league baseball for a daily newspaper. How many other 24-year-olds can say they were given that kind of opportunity?

The Times let me cover the Baltimore Orioles for two years, let me cover Cal Ripken’s final season in uniform, let me cover the greatest single sporting event I can imagine ever getting to cover (the 2001 World Series between the Diamondbacks and Yankees).

The Times let me cover the Washington Redskins for two years, let me cover Steve Spurrier’s downfall and Joe Gibbs’ return, let me cover the wildest Super Bowl I can imagine trying to cover (Patriots 32, Panthers 29).

And the Times let me cover the return of baseball to the nation’s capital, from the first bullpen session in Viera in 2005 to the emotional home opener at RFK Stadium two months later to the surprising pennant run that summer to the heartbreaking collapse that fall.

Thanks to the Times, I got to spend countless hours with Frank Robinson, cherished moments with one of the sport’s true giants, who it turns out has a far bigger heart than most would have ever guessed. Thanks to the Times, I got to cover Manny Acta, one of the most genuine human beings I have ever encountered in any walk of life and one you can’t help but root for to find success. Thanks to the Times, I got to be reacquainted with Jim Riggleman, 12 years after first meeting him as a wide-eyed college intern assigned to cover the Chicago Cubs for a summer.

The Times let me cover the opening of Nationals Park, christened by Ryan Zimmerman as only he could (a walk-off homer). And the Times let me cover losses, a lot of losses over the last five years that cost many people their jobs long before I ever knew I would lose mine.

Because of the Times, I got to know countless ballplayers and assorted baseball lifers as more than just professionals, but as human beings. People like Ryan Zimmerman, Brad Wilkerson, Chad Cordero, Livan Hernandez, Brian Schneider, Nick Johnson, Jamey Carroll, John Patterson, Dmitri Young, John Lannan, Ryan Church, Robert Fick, Jason Bergmann, Jesus Flores, Shawn Hill, Ray King, Joel Hanrahan, Aaron Boone, Wil Nieves, Willie Harris, Adam Dunn, Randy St. Claire, Tony Siegle, Tony Beasley, Tim Tolman, Pat Listach, Rick Eckstein, Randy Knorr, Tony Tavares, Jim Bowden, John Dever, Mark Rogoff, Mike Gazda, Bill Gluvna, Rob McDonald, Chartese Burnett, Lisa Pagano, Mike Rizzo, Stan Kasten, Mark Lerner and many, many more with the Nats.

Because of the Times, I got to compete against — but more importantly, establish lifelong friendships with — talented sportswriters and broadcasters like Barry Svrluga, Chico Harlan, Bill Ladson, Howard Fendrich, Joseph White, Craig Heist, Rich Campbell, Todd Jacobson, Dave Sheinin, Dan Connolly, John Keim, Paul Woody, Jim Ducibella, Bob Carpenter, Charlie Slowes, Dave Jageler, Rob Dibble, Johnny Holliday, Ray Knight and Debbi Taylor.

Because of the Times, I got to work alongside the finest sportswriters and editors a scrappy, No. 2-newspaper-that-acted-like-a-No. 1-newspaper could ever assemble. Mark Hartsell, who hired me and always was there for me, right to the end. John Taylor and Dave Coates, who pushed me to be the best I could be. Thom Loverro, who mentored me from day one and sat next to me at every major ballgame (plus plenty of insignificant ones). Ben Goessling, whom I was proud to cover the Nats with and hand the beat to. Ken Wright, who always made me laugh. Ryan O’Halloran, who will always remain a close friend. Bob Cohn, without whom I would never have gotten this job in the first place. Jody Foldesy, who taught me how to be a real beat writer. Dan Daly, David Elfin, Rick Snider and Dick Heller, who knew far more about the subjects I covered than I did and thus were always valuable and appreciated resources. The night-side editorial team of Scott Silverstein, Harrison Goodman, Monty Wood, Chris Marti, Steve Repsher, Lacy Lusk, Paige Connor, Steve Whyno, Mike Petre, Drew Hanson, Jon Fogg and plenty of other people who unfortunately I recognize far better by voice than by face.

Because of the Times, I got to meet the woman of my dreams: a beautiful, smart, caring, baseball-loving woman named Rachel who has stood by my side the last four years and will stand with me for eternity. If I never got this job, I never would have come to Washington and I never would have met my wife. Forget any professional opportunities, that’s the best thing this newspaper ever did for me.

Because of the Times, I got to meet and interact with countless readers and fans, the most-rewarding part of the job. Even if an occasional comment or two was negative.

I have no idea if the Times’ decision to eliminate sports is smart from a business standpoint. Economics has never been my forte, and people a lot smarter than me probably can’t answer this question. But I do know the paper will lose readers. A lot. I know this because I’ve heard from so many of you over the last few weeks, so many of you who were stunned to hear the news, said you read the paper specifically because of our section and offered the kindest words of encouragement imaginable. It’s been a humbling experience, and one I’ll forever cherish.

I wish I could tell you what’s next professionally for me, but the honest answer is I don’t know yet. I have been exploring some other potential opportunities here in town, and I’m cautiously optimistic something will come through that will allow me to continue doing what I love: covering baseball in the nation’s capital. Hopefully, by the time Opening Day 2010 rolls around, I’ll be stationed somewhere in the press box at Nationals Park. Maybe a few seats down the row. Maybe tucked away in the far, rear corner. Maybe not there at all.

In the meantime, I want to say thank you one last time to anyone who ever read, commented, complained, critiqued, applauded, edited or assigned anything I wrote for the Washington Times over the last nine years.

The pleasure was all mine.

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Mark Zuckerman

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