- 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.

What Ryan O’Halloran brought to the Redskins beat, joining forces with Dave Elfin, gave us an edge over the competition many mornings. The same goes for Mark Zuckerman and Ben Goessling on the Nationals, Mike Jones on the Wizards, Corey Masisak on the Capitals, Barker Davis on golf and Georgetown basketball, Patrick Stevens on Maryland, Tim Lemke on business and media, John Haydon on soccer, Steve Nearman on running and - I can mention him last because he knows how much I think of him - jack-of-all-sports Bob Cohn on features.

Mike, bless him, commuted all these years from Bridgeville, Del. (“home to the annual Apple-Scrapple Festival”). On good days, when the traffic wasn’t too bad, he made it to work in an hour and 20 minutes.

Then there’s tireless Patrick, who seems to have figured out a way to blog while sleeping. (I’m guessing it involves a voice-activated laptop and a highly unique pattern of snoring.)

And Bob… now it can be told. He was the recurring “Neal from Gaithersburg” character - Neal being his Secret First Name - in my Sunday Column. Whenever I was running low on one-liners, I’d shoot him an e-mail and he’d rescue me with a bon mot or two.

Something else you probably didn’t know about our staff: Deputy SE Scott Silverstein, who directs the desk most nights, is the boys and girls track coach at Churchill High School in Potomac. If they ever held a 100-yard dash at the Associated Press Sports Editors convention, Scott would win by five lengths.

As for the columnists, there wasn’t much overlap among us - which is exactly what you want in a sports section. I was the jabber and joker, Tom Knott the thunderbolt thrower. Thom Loverro liked to write about the manly arts, and Dick Heller never tired of reminding us of The Way It Was. And who didn’t love Gene Mueller, our field-and-stream specialist? Here’s all you need to know about Geno’s 24-plus years of splendid work: There isn’t a fish in the Chesapeake Bay that has a good thing to say about him.

Somehow, despite a limited budget, Mark Hartsell, our assistant managing editor for sports, and John Taylor, his deputy, put it all together and made it work. And thanks to Harrison Goodman, the able assistant SE for design, the section always looked world class.

Some who worked here got worn out and/or discouraged and moved on. Others, like me, went the distance because, well, after a while a place becomes your home. Besides, the bosses were good enough to give us the freedom, the trust, that writers need - but don’t always get. If there’s one thing you can’t put a price on in this business, it’s that.

The people I’m sorriest for are the younger members of the department. I mean, at least I’ve been lucky enough to have a career - 34 years’ worth. If this is it for me - if, in these contracting times, there’s no room at the inn for a 56-year-old sports columnist - you’ll hear no complaints about being shortchanged. (Though you might hear, “Would you like some whipped cream on your frappuccino?”)

After all, when I signed on at the Times, there were no guarantees it would last a year or even a month. The only real surprise is that the entire sports section has been euthanized/amputated (choose one) - while the paper reinvents itself yet again, this time catering to an almost exclusively political audience. Can’t say I saw that coming.

Still, you couldn’t have asked for a better 27 1/2 years to write about sports in Washington. This was truly the Golden Age.

The Redskins won three Super Bowls. Baseball came back. The Capitals went to the Stanley Cup Finals - and now have the best hockey player in the world, Alex Ovechkin. The U.S. Open returned to Congressional. D.C. United ruled Major League Soccer.

And that’s just the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg. I haven’t even mentioned George Mason - George Mason! - making the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament… or Georgetown and Maryland (men and women both) winning it… or Leonard-Hagler… or 100 other gold-plated memories.

In those 27 1/2 years, truth was forever trumping fiction. In those 27 1/2 years, the Times was always there.

And with that we say goodbye - for now, anyway. But maybe, if the planets align properly and this economic stimulus really works, you’ll be hearing from us all again - sometime, somewhere, somehow.

Thanks for reading us, for the comments pro and con, for the e-mails of support in recent weeks. There are few certainties in life, but of this I’m absolutely sure: The Washington Times sports department left it all on the field.

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