On Friday Sept. 7, 1979, I walked into a press box for the first time as a professional writer.
The place was Memorial Field in Elgin, Illinois, and the occasion was the season-opening football game between Schaumburg High School and Elgin High School. I was covering the game as stringer for the Suburban Trib.
In the 42 years since that night, I climbed up into countless high school football press boxes (when not walking the field and being exposed to the elements), five college football press boxes, six pro hockey press boxes, eight NFL press boxes, four minor-league baseball press boxes, two baseball press boxes in Japan and 41 Major League Baseball press boxes.
I also covered about a million basketball games (mostly high school with a good number of college and junior college mixed in), and for those, I usually sat at or right behind the courtside scorer’s table.
Since I took a buyout from the Daily Herald in October 2019 after 31 years (the last 22 covering the Chicago Cubs), I have been mostly out of the press box, which is why I’m calling this little venture “Write out of the Press Box.”
In semi-retirement, I’ve written feature stories for the Herald and for my alma matter, Loyola University Chicago, The Athletic and for a great group called Athletes Unlimited, which features the best in women’s professional softball, volleyball and lacrosse. I was on-site in Rosemont, Illinois, for the inaugural season of Athletes Unlimited softball, but because of COVID, I had to do most of my work from a makeshift press box outdoors.
What we’ll do in “Write out of the Press Box” is tell a few stories (maybe even a few out of school), comment on current events and generally have some fun.
Now a few words about press boxes:
The press box is the “office” for those of us who write sports. Some press boxes are nicer than others, but most are pretty utilitarian.
As Jerome Holtzman wrote in his seminal book on sports writing, there is no cheering in the press box – other than cheering for fast games and good story lines. In 22 years on the Cubs beat, I found that there were precious few of the former and plenty of the latter.
There is also no free lunch in the press box although you can get a Dodger Dog (overrated) gratis in the Dodger Stadium press box long about the fifth inning.
Press boxes generally are places of happy banter. A particularly witty bon mot might make it to Twitter as something coming from a “press box wag.”
For the most part, no subject is off-limits, and if someone wanders into the press box, he or she is fair game. When Bud Selig was acting commissioner of baseball and still owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, he was trying his best to get a new ballpark to replace charming old County Stadium. One day, Bud walked into the box to kibbitz with the writers as he often did. When the Milwaukee ballpark situation was still unsettled, a local press box wag spotted Bud and said, “Hey Bud, I know what your new ballpark is going to be called.” Bud decided he’d bite, likely knowing some wisecrack was coming. The wag delivered the punch line: “The Ballpark at Charlotte.”
For some reason, that line chased Bud from the box.
Press boxes grow quieter as deadline approaches for night games. Writers need to have something to send at deadline (they’ve gotten earlier and earlier over the years despite promises that technology was going to make them later) to fill space before they can update with postgame quotes for the later editions.
But as the clock strikes the appointed minute, you’ll often hear outbursts of cuss words as a late lead changes force a change in storylines or if a laptop somehow eats a story. In the old days, press boxes used to have phones at each writer’s station – those sumbitches were heavy – and oftentimes a writer would slam down the receiver after a desk person had the temerity to ask when that story would be filed.
Celebrities have been known to visit press boxes. On Opening Day 1994 at Wrigley Field, when I was the backup baseball writer for the Herald, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton came into the press box for an impromptu news conference. She was standing about six inches from me in a crowd of reporters and Secret Service agents. I started to reach into my sport-jacket pocket for my tape recorder, having the good sense to tell the Secret Service agent next to me that I was indeed reaching for a recorder. He didn’t shoot me.
Another time, Kid Rock’s entourage stormed the box and made all kinds of noise. Old pal Paul Sullivan, the chapter chair of the Baseball Writers Association of America, took exception on behalf of all of us and told the entourage to get the heck (or something like that) out. Sully, who comes up well short of 6 feet tall, invited the entourage to bring it if they didn’t like it. The entourage left peacefully after a few parting words were exchanged each way.
One of the photos for this little enterprise is of me where I literally had to write out of the press box. On the final Sunday of a pivotal August 2015series between the Cubs and Giants – one that Cubs manager Joe Maddon said was key to his young team’s run to the postseason, we repaired to the press box to write our stories.
A few minutes into our work, a security guard came into the box and told us we had to leave immediately. The look on his face told us he wasn’t kidding and that no objections would be brooked.
So we packed up and headed out to Sheffield Avenue to wait out what turned out to be a false bomb scare. I plopped myself down on the sidewalk and finished up my game story and notebook. Jon Greenberg, who today is a founding editor of The Athletic snapped the photo at my request.
It proved only that wherever you’re writing, that’s your press box, even if you have to write out of the press box.