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.

Friday, August 6, 2010

What's in a name? A lot if "24" says it

In my opinion, the two best sportswriters working today are Tom Verducci and Joe Posnanski, now both at Sports Illustrated. Verducci usually writes about baseball, but Posnanski writes about everything. If you care about baseball, anything he writes on the game is a must-read.

I just finished Joe's "where are they now" profile of Stan Musial in the current edition of SI. It is another remarkable effort from this writer.

One portion hit home for me. In the story, my friend and longtime St. Louis baseball writer Rick Hummel describes the first time Musial ever called him, "Rick." He was flabbergasted. I had a similar moment with Willie Mays.

Mays is not good with names, but you knew that. He got his nickname because he would see teammates as a rookie and yell, "Say, hey" because he couldn't remember. In my time knowing Willie, the only writer he ever called by name was Nick Peters, recently retired and winner of the J.G. Spink Award (Hall of Fame). To Willie, everyone else is, "Hey, writer."

A couple of springs ago, I was standing near the table in the Scottsdale Stadium clubhouse where Mays holds court. He wanted to ask me something and said, "Hey, Henry...." I was floored. I knew I'd arrived.

Will Clark calls me by name, too, but it's like, "Hey, Henry, what kind of s-- are you trying to stir up in here?" Barry Bonds called me by name, too, only he thought my name was #%$&^!@!. Just kidding, Barry, wherever you are. Matt Cain called me by name during the last homestand as he was throwing an aerobie around the stands with Madison Bumgarner. Cain came up the press box, held up the hollowed-out Frisbee-like thing and said, "Hey, Henry. Looks like a donut, doesn't it? You like that. Don't you?

If you can read the Posnanski piece on Stan the Man, do it. It's terrific.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ten things I wish I hadn't done

In the underrated Albert Brooks film "Defending Your Life," Brooks is on trial in an afterlife waystation after he is killed in an accident in L.A. The trial is to determine whether he has conquered his mortal fears and therefore eligible to move to a more evolved state of existence. During the trial, the prosecutor shows vignettes of Brooks' life on a big screen, including a montage of stupid things he had done. It looks like a slapstick reel, and the two judges in the courtroom start snickering.

The prosecutors could create a pretty good slapstick reel for me, too. Here is a random list of 10 real-life scenes from my life:

1) When I was about 10, I used to take a running start and leap on a chair in the center of my bedroom so I could fly like Superman. Once, I placed the chair directly in the doorway, smacked my head on the jamb and nearly knocked myself out.

2) When I was 25, I asked a woman to a Pat Metheny concert (shaddup!). She said yes, but when I went to get tickets they were sold out. I asked her if she wanted to do something else and she said, "Oh, no, that's OK." Three years later we did go on a date, and we eventually got married. Pat Metheny was not on the wedding mix. I outgrew him by then.

3) As a sophomore at Cal State Northridge I played in the Matador marching band. Just before the pregame show at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, I bent over and split the back of my black toreador pants right down the seam, exposing my tighty whities. I had to ask the really hot wife of our band director, over whom I routinely drooled, to re-sew the seam in front of my band mates. She and I later went to a Pat Matheny concert.

4a) As a rookie ball writer in 1988, I was covering the Mets-Dodgers National League Championship Series. Dodger Tim Belcher threw a gem in Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. I ran into the home clubhouse, saw a huge scrum of writers surrounding a player and asked, "Was that the best you've seen Belcher pitch this year?" All the writers stared at me as if I were an idiot. So did the player. It was Belcher.

4b) Twenty-two years later -- last Saturday, if you must know -- I asked Buster Posey how good Barry Zito's stuff looked from behind the plate. Posey said he wouldn't know. He played first base that day.

5) When I was 15, my family and our neighbors went to Lake Tahoe. My sister and her friend got me to wear a T-shirt that read, "Hi. I'm Henry from Los Angeles," thinking it would help me make friends. All it did was make people hope I was getting the special education I needed.

6) At Cal, I routinely played in all-night poker games during finals week, which explains why I'm a sportswriter today.

7) In my mid-20s, I played in a semi-regular touch football game with colleagues at the Oakland Tribune. Though I weighed over 200 pounds, I volunteered to play cornerback. I was chasing a receiver on a "go" route. Knowing I was beaten, I just raised my arms and started waving them hoping the receiver wouldn't see the ball, which is patently illegal. My penalty was greater than 15 yards: The football hit me in the back, I toppled to the ground, tore cartilage in my left knee, sprained the anterior-cruciate ligament and, for good measure, fractured my right arm hitting the ground.

8) In my 20s, I had a date with a woman I really liked. I took her to a museum in San Francisco to see an Ansel Adams exhibit and to dinner. We had a great time. She actually asked me what was next on our date. I took her to my place and . . . insisted she watch my new "Reefer Madness" video. Never saw her again.

9) When I was in college, lots of folks had a bumper sticker that read, "Warning, I stop for small animals." I bought one for my car that read, "Warning, I speed up to run over small animals." The resulting vandalism to my Datsun B-210 was both expected and ruthless.

10) Actually bought a Pat Metheny album.