Tuesday, August 6, 2013

When it's bird versus cop, the feathers will fly

Yeah, the San Francisco Ball Scribe blog is back after a mere three-year hiatus. Sorry it took so long. I had a cold.

Actually, I had more than a cold. I had a lot of things happen in my life that made it hard for me to be funny. I lost my passion for a lot of things, including this little modest attempt at humor and insight into the life of a major-league beat writer.

I have felt a lot better lately and wondered how I could reintroduce this blog, which ended so abruptly. I was kind of stuck...until the pelican came into my life.

This pelican:

Or whatever the hell bird this is supposed to be.

First off, I apologize for the fuzziness of the picture. I was laughing my head off when I took it Sunday.

Here's the scene: I and my fellow scribes are inside the tunnel at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg waiting to be let into the clubhouse for our postgame chat with Bruce Bochy. Usually we wait about 10 minutes after the final out before we are let inside.

Later that day, a college baseball game was to be played in the stadium and this bird apparently is a mascot for one of the teams.

The Pelican and his "handler," the guy in the rainbow shirt, were just moseying inside the tunnel when this security guard intercepted them. The bird apparently failed to produce the proper credentials to be inside that tunnel.

I'm not exactly sure what that credential would look like, but I sure as hell would like to be there when they shoot the photo for it. I imagine the bird flapping its wings and running in circles and the photographer yelling, "Stand still, dammit."

The best part about this was the way the pelican was pacing back and forth with its arms folded as his handler got on the phone trying to reach the proper authorities, and I love the expression on the bird's face -- the perfect indignation for this entire episode.

I really wanted to walk over and say, "Hey, buddy, don't lay an egg!" But this wasn't my fight.

I also have to love the vigor and determination with which the security guard was doing her job. I seriously doubt she thought that this was the start of a great Al Qaeda plot, but she had rules to follow and no blob of feathers was going to sneak past her. The ever-increasing anger of Rainbow Guy the longer this went on made it even funnier.

So, we writers are watching all this and busting a gut. That's a problem, because the Giants lost a one-run game, and anytime the team you cover loses you are expected to show decorum when you walk into the manager's office for the postgame interview. We call it the "game face."

We didn't have our game faces on, and the longer this bird-versus-cop standoff went on the harder it became to make an effort of solemnity.

Finally, a woman who works for the Rays strode along the tunnel and told the security guard the bird and rainbow guy were OK. The guard protested about the lack of credential but finally gave in.

We thought we would have a few moments to gather ourselves, but this then this fellow below, completely unrelated to the Pelican, happened by, and now we writers are peeing our pants laughing.

The best part about the photo is the security guard at the clubhouse door, watching this scene as if he were a funeral director during a memorial service.

No smiles, no laughs, as if he sees this creature a hundred times a day.

I'm a pretty jolly fellow, and I have a tough time keeping a straight face when I get into a laughing fit. I really thought for a moment I'd have to stay outside before going into Bochy's office.

But I lucked out. General manager Brian Sabean was on the trip and he apparently went into Bochy's office after the loss for a talk with the manager. We were kept out of Bochy's office for a good 15 minutes, maybe more.

Usually we'd be angry about that. Not on this day. We were grateful.

Now, I'm just trying to imagine pelican going home after the game, sitting on the couch, pulling his head off (or leaving it on, if that's how he rolls), popping open a cold one and telling his significant other, "Man, you wouldn't believe this hard-ass security guard I had to deal with."

It's enough to make a good bird molt.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rain delay contest entries

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The best e-mail I've received in a long time

Some time ago, I blogged about buying my 78-year-old mother a device called the Mailbug, whose only purpose is to send and receive text-only e-mails. It's popular with seniors who don't have computers because it's easy to use.

She used it to send me an e-mail after tonight's games. a 6-3 Giants win over Arizona and the Padres' 2-1 victory against Los Angeles. I will share it in its entirety. You should know that she has never been to a professional baseball game, will not watch one on TV, and could not explain a single rule about the sport, which is what made this so precious.

Here it is:

To: Henry Schulman

From: Ella Schulman

Subject: Dodgers

"It looks like they can't hit a side of a barn from one foot away. It is up to the Giants to keep winning, like they are doing.

"Mom."

I should introduce her to Lasorda.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Celebrating life on the road not taken

My first real time away from home was my junior year at college. I went to Cal, where campus cops looked the other way at marijuana, dorm-room fridges were stocked with cheap beer and there was a 50-50 chance that any mushroom you consumed was not the kind you could procure at Berkeley Bowl.

So I had to laugh the following summer when I returned home to Los Angeles, my dad offered me a shot of whiskey and my mom said, "Ben, don't teach him to drink." Parents are the bomb, aren't they?

I think of that every time I visit my mom in Los Angeles, as I did this week. Though alone now, she still rattles around the same rent-controlled, three-bedroom apartment to which we moved during my senior year of high school. It's a nice place that I actually discovered because I was a fat little boy.

My folks were looking to move to a bigger place. One Sunday morning I grabbed the keys so I could drive five blocks (shaddup!) to Winchell's donuts, even though I needed to stuff more fried sugar cakes into my maw as much as people in Barrow, Alaska, need sunscreen. I had to turn right onto Havenhurst Drive, and being a good little motorist I looked to my left for traffic and saw the for-rent sign.

My folks were not drinkers. Both of their fathers were a little too enamored with the drop and neither wanted to follow the same path. So I found it funny that after I moved away for good my parents bought one of those standalone bars with two stools and storage shelves behind for all the bottles they received as gifts and never opened. They stuck it right in my old room. I'm pretty sure there used to be a "Dogs Playing Poker" painting behind the bar. Maybe my mom sent it to Sotheby's for appraisal.

Visiting my old room reminds me of how close I came to moving back home after college. I had a political science degree, which oddly enough opened few doors to $100,000-a-year jobs. I had no job lined up aside from the few dollars I earned covering Berkeley City Hall for the Daily Cal. Days before I was to load my worldly possessions into my orange Datsun B-210 for the drive down I-5, I got a tip that the Chronicle needed a Berkeley stringer. I phoned the editor in charge and he hired me over the phone. I'd get a $200 monthly retainer plus a few bucks for each story that got published, and let me tell you, when you get paid by the piece you become a real noodnik ("Hey, editor, two garbage cans near Wheeler Hall went up in flames. You want 500 words?"). Good thing there was no caller ID back then or he'd have blackballed my number.

So I stayed in Berkeley, renting a place with my buddies Steve and Gene above a Chinese restaurant on San Pablo Avenue. For half a year, I subsisted on Daily Cal and Chronicle stringer money and even managed to save a few bucks. I used those clips to get a sort of internship in Sacramento, which helped me land a job at a weekly paper in the Central Valley and so on and so on to my current gig covering the Giants at the Chronicle.

The decision I made that June day in 1981, to stay in Northern California despite the fear of being broke and no mom-and-dad cushion (and nobody to teach me to drink), proved to be an even bigger cornerstone in my life than I would have imagined. Because I managed to keep myself clothed and swimming in glazed donuts, I learned that it's OK to take risks.

How different my life would have been had I returned to Los Angeles. Dad would have turned me into a full-fledged alkie and the 'rents would have persuaded me to give up this ridiculous notion of writing for a living.

Being Jewish in Los Angeles is akin to being in the Mafia in New York. Whenever I needed something -- a suit, a bike -- my dad would say, "Don't go to the store. I know a guy..." I'm sure one of those "guys" would have employed me in a respectable trade. At this moment, I could be the top-selling wall-to-wall carpet salesman in the West San Fernando Valley territory.

Nothing wrong with that. You can't cut a mean rug on the dance floor without the rug. And I'll bet I'd be happy, too, because I'd be so close to family and not even realize how much of a dump Los Angeles really is.

The moral: Don't be afraid of the dark. Take a chance. Follow Robert Frost's advice and choose the road not taken.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go teach a couple of baseball writers to drink.

Monday, August 23, 2010

My name is Henry Schulman and I am a newspaperman

God I love that word, "newspaperman." Yeah, it's sexist. It harkens and era when newsrooms were full of men aside from the writers for the "women's pages" and the rare trailblazing woman who didn't gave a rat's backside about fitting into the old boy's network and went to work for newspapers because she loved the thought of it. We are lucky indeed that so many great women now work as journalists.

Yeah, I'm a reporter, and a sportswriter, and a scribe, and a hack, and a baseball writer, and I love being all of them. But a newspaperman is different. He is someone who might have worked with Hildy Johnson in "The Front Page," who smoke and drank and reveled in the camaraderie and actually garnered respect from the public, which saw newspapers as an important watchdog that fought corruption and toiled for the little guy.

I knew newspapermen. The teacher for my first college news writing class was a man named Maynard Hicks. He must have been a 80 then, and that was more than 30 years ago, and he told stories about working in newsrooms of the 20s and 30s, an era when the Internet and even television would have been laughed off as science fiction, when newspapers were king, when big cities like San Francisco had a half-dozen of them and all were important.

I first got the bug in high school, when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down President Nixon. God, that was a heady time for the business. Two guys holding 50-cent pens and two-dollar notebooks asked the right questions and brought down a corrupt president. Who wouldn't want to be Woodward and Bernstein

As a high school journalist I toured the Los Angeles Times in the old Times-Mirror building in downtown Los Angeles. The first sensation was the smell of the ink as soon as you walked into the lobby. The presses were in the building. It was like liquor to me. Writing for the Fairfax High Gazette, I listed the winners of the recent swim meet and editorialized about the need for new band uniforms. Not exactly Watergate, but my name appeared atop it and it felt so good.

Fast forward to age 25, when I got hired at the Oakland Tribune. The Trib Tower in Oakland was the LA Times all over again, an old building, presses downstairs, the smell of ink and, best of all, working with older cats who back in the day were real newspapermen. My desk mate was old-timey guy who smoked cigars in the newsroom. I didn't care. I loved the scent. Then, smoking was banned in the newsroom. he bought cases of grape Bubble Yum to ease the withdrawal and told me I could grab as much as I wanted. One morning, I walked into the newsroom and learned that he died the night before. He had just gotten married. Another newspaperman gone.

A great story from the Trib. There was a newspaperman there who liked the sauce. In his later years, he did rewrite. Reporters who covered accidents, murders, government meetings, etc. phoned in and dictate stories. One reporter was covering a meeting in Berkeley at which activists were complaining about stronghand tactics by immigration officials. The reporter phoned in a quote that went something like, "We're tired of the INS coming in here and disrupting our town." In the paper the next day, the rewrite man had written, "We're tired of the iron ass coming in here and disrupting our town." Got by all the editors, too.

Another great story from the Trib, from before I got there. It used to be an afternoon paper. One Saturday morning, word came into the sports department that a former Cal athletic coach, Nibs Price, had passed away. With time short, the editor ordered one reporter to write a quick obit, another to fish for a photo from the library and a third to write the headline. It all got slapped together in a hurry, and an real old-time news guy who still employed colorful language of yore wrote a headline that read, "Death Calls Nibs Price." It ran over a photo of Price on the telephone.

As my old friend and editor John Simmonds used to say when telling this story, "No, Nibs, don't answer it!"

In 1992, the Trib died. Actually, it got sold to a cost-slashing company named Media News, which was worse than death. I wound up at the San Francisco Examiner, once the flagship of the Newspaperman of Newspapermen, William Randolph Hearst. but times were changing. We typed our stories on video-display terminals. Drinking was discouraged. Old newspapermen were pushed out in favor of hotshot kids with master's degrees in journalism. Some were fantastic. Others couldn't find a good story in a Shakespeare library, but by gum, they had that diploma.

There was a time a reporter earned his "master's degree" by working in the cop shop, when veterans would test the mettle of the neophyte by showing him gory crime-scene photos.

This is not just me channeling Herb Caen. There is a fundamental shift in this business I love. Instant opinion is welcomed, even encouraged, fact-checking be damned. I can live with the end of the printed newspaper. After all, I drive a motor vehicle, not a horse and buggy. But I cannot countenance the demise of newspapermen -- and women. With athletes, they say the name on the front of the jersey means more than the name on the back. It was the same in newspapers. The name on the masthead meant more than the byline. Yeah, there were stars, but really, it was all about telling a story, righting a wrong. Not selling a personality.

I have been blessed to write about baseball for the last 22 years. I am proud of my work and my vocation.

But, please, if you happen to blog or Tweet my obituary someday, please do me one last honor and call me a newspaperman.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ode to a cheesesteak

Let me say straight off that if the Israelites had gone through Philadelphia before writing their dietary laws, the mixing of meat and dairy would be kosher today. They probably would have run across an ancient cheesesteak place and tasted the perfect blending of cow flesh and provolone.

My arteries are begging me for mercy at the moment, but I'm giving them no quarter. I'm in Philly. There are cheesesteaks here. I love cheesesteaks. I am going to eat cheesesteaks -- more than one. If my arteries don't like it, they can go live inside a vegan.

Not all cheesesteaks are built alike. There are three famous places in Philly. Two of them, Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's, reside on the same corner in South Philly. Legend has it that Pat's invented the cheesesteak. There's another on South Street called Jim's. They are cheesesteak factories that get a lot of pub in tourist magazines. I'm sure many folks love their product; I am not among them. When I order a cheesesteak, I don't want to be served a barely warm sandwich with the cheese slapped on haphazardly and not melted. Can't blame the shops. They're making a billion at a time.

At Jim's you stand in a long line and watch the steaks prepared. It's considered a delicacy here to apply a liberal quantity of Cheez Whiz on a steak in lieu of provolone. Vats of the stuff line the kitchen. Excuse me, but yecch. Imagine sitting down at the House of Prime Rib to a luscious, thick slab, medium rare, then dipping it into a bucket of French's mustard.

D'Allesandro's. Now THAT is a cheesesteak. It's a tiny shop in the Roxborough neighborhood in North Philly. I found it by Googling "best cheesesteak Philadelphia no goddamn Cheez Whiz." God bless Google.

First off, the folks running it are real nice, even in a hurry. Behind the counter, workers chop the steak as you order it and cook it naked for a good while. Then -- and here is what makes these steaks better than the rest -- they top the meat with the provolone and let the cheese melt completely. Meat and cheese become entwined as one, like young lovers. Then, the roll is placed over the concoction, and the cheese is allowed to melt onto the bread.

Excuse me. I need a moment . . .

OK, I'm back.

My friend Pete picked me up downtown and drove me to D'Allesandro's this afternoon. I like my steak "without:" meat, cheese, bread. Pete went with mushrooms, onions and something liquid and red. Now, to me that's akin to painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, but I'm not going to judge. Pete's a native New Jerseyer. Grew up 10 minutes from here.

I have to go to work now. It's difficult. Leaving D'Allesandro's for a year, watching it shrink in the rearview mirror, must be what it feels like for a kid going off to boot camp and giving his girl one final kiss before the bus pulls away.

Till 2011, ma cherie frommage.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

An achy back, Barry Bonds and the reason I'm still alive

I have a bad back. I've had one for the last six years or so. This is a story about a back spasm that might have saved my life, and Barry Bonds is very much a part of this tale.

Let's hark to those very dark days of yesteryear, 2005, and Bonds' terrible offseason. This was the height of the BALCO scandal, and my colleagues at the Chronicle, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, seemed to be publishing damaging information about the slugger every week. At the same time, Bonds had his knee scoped after the 2004 season and had to have it scoped again during spring training of 2005.

As an aside, allow me to explain my role in the Chronicle's steroids investigation. Mark and Lance would dig up incriminating information. Mark invariably would phone me in the evening and explain what they were going to publish the next day. When I saw his number pop up on my phone, I started to get the shakes. My job was to go to Bonds, present him with the info and ask if he wanted to comment. As you can imagine, that did wonders for my relationship with Bonds. To this day, when I'm kicking back at his pad in Los Angeles drinking his best hooch while we discuss which clubs to hit that night, we still laugh about it.

Even I wasn't prepared for what our paper published on March 20, 2005. Mark and Lance reported that Bonds' former girlfriend, Kimberly Bell, told the BALCO grand jury what she knew about Bonds' alleged steroid use. In fact, Ms. Bell spoke to our reporters and provided evidence of their liaison. One document was a hotel receipt from the Westin Oaks in Houston, where the Giants stayed. The room was Ms. Bell's, and the receipt included the name of the Giants' then-traveling secretary, Reggie Younger. The implication was that Bonds had Younger book the room for her.

On March 19, I had a fortuitous back spasm in the press box at Scottsdale Stadium while watching the Giants play the Padres. I remember the opponent because former San Diego Union-Tribune beat writer Tom Krasovic had to carry my stuff to the car for me. I went to my condo for the usual treatment, ice then heat. When I awoke the next morning my back was still killing me and I decided not to go the stadium for the morning interview sessions. That was a good thing.

Mr. Younger saw the article that morning, and according to witnesses he bounded down the stairs into the clubhouse in a eye-bugged fury yelling, "Where's Henry. I'm going to kill him!" Never mind that I didn't write the article nor even know what it was going to say. I was the face of the Chronicle. I honestly don't know if Mr. Younger would have physically attacked me, but he was a large man, and given the state of my back I would have been defenseless.

Mark and Lance would have to admit -- and if I recall Mark did admit -- they did not go out of their way to let Mr. Younger know he was going to appear in a BALCO story linked as he was. The writers did not call me this time asking to get a comment, and their attempt to reach Mr. Younger was half-hearted. They phoned the Giants' offices in San Francisco on the previous Friday afternoon. Not being baseball writers, perhaps they did not know Mr. Younger would be in Arizona, not California.

Bonds was not in Arizona, though. He had returned to the Bay Area for the second of what would be three knee operations. He returned two days after the story ran, on crutches. That was the day of the famous "picnic table" press conference in which Bonds, with his son Nikloai seated next to him as a prop, quietly told reporters (in obvious reference to the Kimberly Bell story), "You wanted me to jump off the bridge. I finally jumped. You wanted to bring me down. You finally have brought me and my family down. You've finally done it, everybody, all of you. So now go pick a different person. I'm done. I'll do the best I can."

Well, he didn't tell every reporter that. As Bonds emerged from the clubhouse and greeted a group of us, I decided I would be the one to ask Bonds if he would speak, fully knowing the storm that would follow. One of my baseball writing mentors, Kit Stier, told me if you (or your paper) write something that angers a player, your face should be the first he sees the next day. It shows you're not scared. It shows you stand behind your work.

I said, "Barry, can we get you for a few minutes?"

"I'm never talking to you for the rest of my life," Bonds said.

So I walked away from the group to let the interview proceed as Bonds told a Giants PR man in reference to me, "Make sure he doesn't listen in."

As Bonds and Nikolai sat atop the picnic table, I stood along the stadium gate watching from 30 feet away. A woman waiting to get into the stadium for the game shouted at me from outside, "Why don't you leave that poor man alone?" I looked at her and said, "You see me talking to him?"

The ESPN boys were nice enough to drive me to their satellite uplink facility and let me watch the videotape of the entire press conference. I wrote my story with the disclaimer that I saw it on tape.

Later that season, Bonds came to realize -- or somebody told him -- that despite my affiliation with the eventual "Game of Shadows" authors who wrote those stories for the Chronicle, I had nothing to do with it aside from receiving my paychecks from the same firm. My relationship with Bonds, never great to begin with, did not deteriorate from there. He did talk to me that season and every season thereafter until the Giants "retired" him in 2007.

I got to watch him set the all-time home run record that year. If not for a back spasm, I might have had to read about it from the beyond, in the Beelezebub Times.