Much like my feature last year on “One Shining Moment,” this one was entirely based on a timely suggestion from my editor. All he knew was that the first Home Run Derby of the modern era had occurred the day before the 1985 All-Star Game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Of course, I had grown up watching old episodes of Home Run Derby on ESPN Classic, but I had no idea of the genesis behind its present-day incarnation, so the idea naturally piqued my interest.
To my great surprise, there turned out to be an amazing (and previously unreported) story behind not only its resurrection but also a pretty stunning sequence of events during the derby that sent 70,000 Twins fans home with a smile.
Today, the Home Run Derby is a made-for-TV spectacle, but nothing will ever top the drama of the very first one nearly 30 years ago.
By far, this was the most fun story I wrote in 2014. Not since my “Homer at the Bat” piece in early 2012 had I gotten to really jump into the unknown history behind such a well-known nugget of pop culture. In this case, it was youth baseball coach (and instructional tape mogul) Tom Emanski. Not only had Emanski’s life story never been told, but he’s also become a modern-day recluse in Florida. He hasn’t spoken to the media in more than a decade and ducked my interview requests at every opportunity.
There’s a part of me that really wishes I had been able to go to Florida and knock on his door and give him a more direct chance to explain what he’s been up to all these years. In the end, I don’t think the quality of the story was really affected one way or the other, though I still wish he’d just called me back at some point.
Having said that, many of his former players ended up contacting me after the story ran. I’ll never publish the stories they told me, but I’ve now got more wonderful Tom Emanski anecdotes than I could ever know what to do with.
I think we, the sports media, become too focused on teams that win. What about the teams that don’t have a chance in hell at winning a championship? How do you train and practice? When all you’re expected to do is win, how does the mission change when that no longer becomes a realistic goal?
Meeting with the UConn men’s hockey coach and captain on the eve of its formal ascension into Hockey East — the toughest conference in Division I college hockey — was, for me, a fascinating journey into the most basic machinations of modern athlete culture.
I promised the Huskies’ coach that I would return to Storrs if and when they win a national championship. I hope he holds me to that.
Fay Vincent gets the last word (October 14)
For months, the mandate from my editor was that we need to do something for the 25th anniversary of the 1989 World Series and Loma Prieta earthquake. The problem, for me, was that the best story on the ‘89 Series had already been published last year by Grantland’s Bryan Curtis and Patricia Lee. They covered so much worthy ground in that piece that I was at an absolute loss as to what I could do that was both original and interesting.
I finally decided to profile Fay Vincent for a couple of reasons. One was that the more I looked, the more I kept finding that his personal story was so much more interesting than I realized. He broke his back as a college freshman and has walked with a limp ever since. He was the president of Columbia Pictures. He and Bart Giamatti were the same age. And he remains, to this day, the last major American sports commissioner to be forced out of office. With his successor, Bud Selig, finally set to resign, it seemed like an opportune time to visit with Vincent in his summer home in Connecticut and talk to him about 1989, his tumultuous tenure as commissioner, and his thoughts on how the game has evolved.
It was a bear just to figure out how to contact him. Public records didn’t help much, but I found his AOL email address through the membership database at SABR, of which we’re both members. To my enduring surprise, Vincent wrote me back quickly and said he’d be more than happy to have me pay him a visit. He couldn’t have been more friendly or accommodating, even as reporters were calling his house phone nonstop and asking for his thoughts on Roger Goodell, who was really stumbling through the Ray Rice domestic abuse debacle at the time.
History should remember Fay Vincent better than it does. I hope the piece helped in that effort in some way.
The most incredible experience of my year was getting to witness the Giants’ third World Series title in five years. Save for Madison Bumgarner’s domination of Pittsburgh in the wild card game, everything was unexpected. First, it was the Nationals. Then, the Cardinals. Finally, Kansas City.
Getting to see every playoff game at AT&T Park was a postseason roller coaster I could never have hoped to witness. I saw Bryce Harper hit a home run to right field that still has not landed. I got to run onto the field with Ray Ratto after the pennant-clinching home run by Travis Ishikawa. I got to meet no shortage of talented sportswriters. And I got to see Bumgarner pitch one of the greatest games in World Series history from my perch in upper left field.
It was sports at its absolute finest, and I’ll never forget this past month of October as long as I live.