- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

Everybody told me that participating in ESPN Zone’s first annual Sports Spelling Bee would be a meander in the meadow.

“You’re a sportswriter,” people said. “You spell the names of jocks all the time.”

True. So when my turn came at the local ESPN Zone downtown, I leaned over the microphone, thumped my fist into an imaginary baseball glove and positively brimmed with overconfidence as I awaited my first question from moderator Sara Walsh.

Heck, I knew how to spell Krzyzewski, Yastrzemski and even Bill Mlkvy - the “Owl Without a Vowel” who starred in basketball for Temple from 1949 to 1952. What could Sara possibly throw at me?

“Spell the last name of Sergei Fedorov.” she said.

Yikes! Hockey? As regular readers know, I’m mostly a baseball guy, I’ve seen maybe two hockey games in my life, and they were by accident.

“Fedorov,” I repeated uncertainly. “Uh, F-E-D-E-R-O-V?”

An electronic raspberry sounded, a yellow penalty flag fluttered to the floor, and I was outta there. On the first round yet. What fools these cocky columnists be.

Just for fun, ESPN Zones at eight locations around the country staged similar exercises this week, presumably to lure more weeknight customers off the streets and in front of two dozen or so high-def TVs.

The D.C. contest wasn’t exactly a rousing success. There was room for as many as 50 spellers, but exactly eight other more or less intrepid souls turned up with their mental dictionaries primed.

Probably you could get a bigger turnout of Barack Obama supporters at a Jeremiah Wright sermon. But you play the cards you’re dealt, so away we went.

“I just thought this would be fun,” said Jason Coleman of the District, a Department of Labor staff assistant who finished second. “I’ve been a huge sports fan my whole life. I remember when I was in elementary school in Alabama I used to turn on ESPN every morning and watch until the carpool picked me up.”

Excluding me, of course, most of the nine contestants - all but one male - raced through the first round, which consisted of local names like Cooley, Kearns, Milledge, Campbell and Dmitri (Young). One entrant was eliminated for failing to supply the final letter of Crystal Langhorne’s last name. Another stumbled over Caron Butler’s first.

The second round brought correct replies for Ovechkin, Estrada, Nicklas (Backstrom). Wily (Mo Pena) and Moseley. On round three, the survivors rattled off Manute (Bol), Gheorghe (Muresan) and Obinna (Ekezie). But when a fellow hack essayed Songaila as “Sesyla,” a rock-rumped spectator bawled, “You got letter right!” Actually, it was two, but this was a tough crowd.

Finally, there were just two guys left, Coleman and Greg Giroux of Arlington. Giroux, a reporter for Congressional Quarterly, gave his opponent an opening when he missed on (Pierson) Prioleau of the Redskins.

With a chance to wrap it up, Coleman choked badly on former NBA all-star Hakeem Olajuwon. So on they went, the tension was so thick you could cut it with a spoon.

The two men breezed past (Tomas) Fleischmann, (Antonio) Cromartie, (Chris) Chelios, Jesper (Parnevik), (Craig) Ehlo, (Mark) Calcavecchia and Annika (Sorenstam). Somebody had to give, and it was Coleman. Unexpectedly, he butchered (Orel) Hershiser and slunk off into the night.

Clutching a celebratory brew, Giroux accepted the championship trophy as well as a batch of other ESPN-oriented gifts.

The names I got were pretty easy,” he said modestly, “except for that guy [Prioleau] from the Redskins.”

I don’t want this to sound like bitter fruit, but I don’t think Giroux had to wrestle with any hockey names. How in the world should I have been expected to spell Fedorov? I remember some years ago when this newspaper installed a new spell-checking program, it automatically changed his name to “Serge Federal.” Got into print that way, too.

After the event, I tapped Sara Walsh on the shoulder and hissed, “Didn’t you see the note on my entry form that said ‘no hockey stuff’?”

Even if I had nailed Fedorov, though, I don’t think it would have made any difference, though. I sneaked a postgame peek at the official list of questions, and my second one would have been (Nikolai) Khabibulin.



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