Like everyone else I am having trouble thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic and the shockwaves it has sent, and will continue to send, through the system. As it began to unfold I found myself thinking, talking, and posting about it fairly constantly. In an effort to try to keep it confined to a given time and place, both physically and psychologically, I am keeping a diary of it all.
April 7: Rest in Peace John Prine, victim of COVID-19. Bob Dylan once said, “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.” Dylan is full of shit most of the time, of course. Prine responded by saying he couldn’t even pronounce “Proustian existentialism” and that he said he just wrote songs. They were both right.
Allison and I watched the series finale of “Schitt’s Creek” last night. It was such a sweet show. Whenever I watched it I wanted to believe that, on some level, people are as good and as well-intentioned in real life as Dan Levy wrote them to be on that show. Experience and simply looking around renders that a fantasy, but for a few minutes I could pretend otherwise.
If you read yesterday’s entry you probably picked up that I was not in the best of moods when I went to bed on Monday night. It happens. Yesterday, overall, was a better day.
A harebrained idea about how to restart the Major League Baseball season came across the wires after I went to bed and greeted me when I woke up. There’s nothing like a harebrained idea from Major League Baseball to put me in a better mood. I’ve spent the past 20 years ripping harebrained ideas from Major League Baseball to shreds and these days all of us would kill for some normality and this gave me some.
I wrote my little piece about it — short version: Major League Baseball thinks it can negotiate and/or wish its way out of a pandemic via an unworkable quarantine scheme, with “we can make some money” seeming to me to be the primary argument in its favor — and then got on with my early morning. Then I got a text from Matt.
Matt is a video producer at NBC. When we first started my website in 2009 he contributed some posts to it. Within a year of the site’s launch we began a daily video feature called “HBT Daily” that he ran from Stamford, Connecticut and I taped from my little studio in my basement and Matt helped my way-out-of-his-depth-ass put together video content five days a week for a few years.
A brief aside about the studio.
When I started taping HBT Daily my son Carlo was four years-old. He had afternoon preschool so he’d be home in the morning and he’d watch me go down to the basement at 10am to record the segment. Sometimes he’d ask me what I was doing, so I’d say, “Daddy is making a video for the Internet.” Sometimes I’d show him one of the videos. At the time the host of HBT Daily was a woman named Tiffany Simons. This is what the videos would look like if you watched them back in the day:
That was me when I was ten years younger, 20+ pounds heavier and had crappy glasses. And people ask why I’m happier in my 40s than I was in my 30s.
Anyway, Carlo would see those videos, say things like “you’re on TV, Daddy!” and thought it was great fun. He never actually saw me tape the segments, though, so he didn’t have a good handle on how it was that I was appearing on a screen next to Tiffany. Which was nothing I thought about until, one day, we had this conversation:
Carlo: Did you do the TV thing today?
Carlo: Is that lady still living in our basement?
I told Tiffany about that and she somehow managed not to take out a restraining order against me and/or Carlo.
Matt is producing a show at NBC called “LunchTalk Live.” It launched yesterday and, yes, it’s a show that exists precisely because NBC Sports Network, like all sports platforms, is in need of content given that all the sports have gone away. The host is NBC’s top on-screen dog, Mike Tirico.
Mike is used to broadcasting via satellite from the Super Bowl or the British Open or the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro or something. Thanks to the pandemic he’s basically where I was in 2010, broadcasting via high speed internet from his house. Of course his house is way nicer than mine. And even though our entire industry and entire country is on lockdown, forcing everyone to improvise like crazy, his operation is way slicker than my old videos were too. That might have something to do with the fact that he’s a major media professional with decades of experience and I was a lawyer-turned-blogger who had no business being in front of the camera. I still don’t have any business being in front of a camera, really, but Matt asked me to be on with Tirico today to talk about MLB’s harebrained idea.
I no longer have a basement or a studio, so I put my laptop on top of a laundry drying rack and moved a framed baseball print to a corner of the bedroom to make it kinda/sorta/not really look like a studio. Could’ve been worse. Could’ve had cats in the shot. That used to happen all the time back when I taped HBT Daily in my basement. Matt once told me, after a cat jumped on my lap while taping, that “that’s great television.” I don’t think he was being honest about that because we’d always do a re-take when a cat got in the shot.
Tirico and I did our video, talking about MLB’s harebrained idea. You don’t have to watch it because I sounded even more nasally and more lispy than I normally do today and because I had the laundry rack too close to me, so it made kind of look like an alien. But if you want to watch, this is it:
It was fine.
It also made me think about how long I’ve been doing this and how much my thoughts about my job have changed over time.
Not long after I started doing those videos I started doing actual TV. And not from my basement. Like, they’d fly me in to New York, have a car service pick me up at LaGuardia, and drive me up to the studio in Stamford where we taped NBC’s version of “SportsCenter,” the name of which I can’t remember at the moment but which doesn’t matter because it no longer exists.
They’d deposit me in a green room with ex-athletes like Doug Flutie or Ross Tucker or Amani Toomer or Darryl Hamilton (RIP) or Chris Simms. Or maybe a big media guy like Peter King. A couple of times a fellow baseball internet nerd, Joe Sheehan, would be there and I’m pretty sure both of us wondered why on Earth they thought we should be on TV.
After we’d sit in the green room and talk about the show we’d go to makeup. Most of the makeup technicians had worked for NBC for years, making everyone from Conan O’Brien to Katie Couric and everyone in between look good on camera, but they’d still always treat me like I belonged there even though I very clearly didn’t. Some people on the crew would refer to me as “talent.” As in “talent needs to be on set in five.” Whenever they’d say that I’d blush, which just made the makeup technician have to use more of that foundation in the airbrush gun to cover up my giant, normally pasty but now-blushing face and make it match the tone they applied to my big shiny bald head. I’d go to the set, try to look at the correct camera, try to say something intelligent — I was talent, after all — and then go back to my hotel room, happy I didn’t totally fuck up a live television broadcast.
I eventually started to get better at TV. Mostly because, like most things in life, it’s all about reps. Partially, though, I started to figure out that what made for good sports TV was pretty much the opposite of what makes for good sports writing.
I learned that pacing was, in a lot of ways, more important than the substance of it all. Good banter that didn’t get to the bottom of an issue was way better than a monologue which did. A quip was better than a point. Knowing which camera to look at when and not being distracted when people were trying to tell you something in your earpiece while you were talking was pretty damn important.
Improv rules were kind of important too. The host may ask you, the alleged baseball expert, and the other guy at the desk who may be a retired pro golfer or a tight end who suffered way too many concussions, about something only one of you know anything about. Despite your impulse to want to go off if you were the guy who knew the topic or defer if you had no idea about it, you all still had to talk. And while it was mostly the host’s job, you had to at least help make sure the conversation stayed balanced. You had to give Mr. Golf or Mr. Football some ground, nod and say, “that’s a good point” and try to build off of it, even if what they just said was pure nonsense. All of that could be frustrating intellectually, but the point is to deliver a TV show as if it were a conversation that viewers could feel a part of. If you wanted to argue with someone, go on one of ESPN’s shout-fests or go on a talk radio show. If you wanted to lecture someone, hey, that’s what your blog is for.
Despite how comfortable I eventually got doing television, I only really felt like I had a future in for about a single week in late 2013. That was when, out of the blue, I was approached by someone at Fox Sports who asked me if I’d consider joining them. It was not yet a job offer — I’d have to talk to some other people first — but Fox was at least interested, and they were approaching me, not the other way around.
To the extent Fox wanted me, it was primarily for what I actually do well — write about baseball on the Internet — but they talked a lot about how they liked what they saw of me on TV and that that would be a regular part of it. They even said that, if it worked out, they’d want me to be in Los Angeles where their TV studios are.
NBC had always been very, very good to me — and still is — and I wasn’t looking to change jobs. Fox holds national Major League Baseball rights, however, so it presented an opportunity to raise my profile a good bit. It kinda made me feel important and, I’ll admit, for the one week in between that first conversation and the big, multi-person conversation we scheduled that day, I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like to be an actual TV personality living in Los Angeles. I may have even looked at real estate listings, you know, just to see what the situation was out there.
Not long into the second, bigger call it became pretty clear to me that, while that first guy l had spoken to liked me a lot, theay all liked someone else way better and they were just doing some due diligence. The call ended and it I knew I wouldn’t hear back from them.
That kind of sucked for a short while, but I got over it pretty quickly when, a few weeks later, I was writing something hyper-critical about some harebrained idea Major League Baseball had come up with and realized that there is no way that Fox — official broadcasting partner of Major League Baseball — would ever let me write that. I know some writers who work for broadcast rights-holders who are able to walk a fine line between independence and criticism on the one hand and the diplomacy necessary in the broadcast business on the other, but I’m not sure I really have those skills. I’m more of a blunt instrument when it comes talking about the actions of people in power. It was all mooted anyway when, a couple of years later, Fox hired a bunch of awful sports talk hosts like Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless and eliminated all of their written editorial content in its entirety. If I had been there I would’ve been out of a job and, I suspect, I’d be back practicing law right now. Everyone’s life is full of opportunities missed, but everyone’s life is also full of bullets dodged and I look at that as a dodged bullet.
The TV stuff with NBC continued for a while longer but began to peter out in 2014 when they realized that they really didn’t need their own version of SportsCenter. They eventually ended that show, and they were right to do it. A couple of months later I moved to a different house. It didn’t have a basement and I didn’t have anyplace for my studio to film my little videos. I came up with some ideas about how to use closets or my garage, but NBC decided it wasn’t really worth it and, again, were right to do so. Football, Hockey, and the Olympics pay the bills there, and there wasn’t much of a percentage in my little but still expensive-to-produce baseball videos to begin with. I boxed up my equipment and, eventually, shipped it back to Stamford. I’ve flown back there maybe twice in the past six years to do a couple of random video segments, and I’ve been on MLB Network and a couple of other places for some one-off TV appearances, but for all practical purposes my TV career, such as it ever was, has been over for a long time.
All of which made today feel weird. But good.
I’m not really sad that the TV stuff is in the rear-view mirror — I’ll always be a writer first, foremost and probably exclusively — but like everyone else with a healthy ego, I like to go in front of a camera and talk about stuff I know a good bit about and I got to do that today. It was also pretty relaxed. Back when I had half a thought that I might have a future in TV, I used to think a lot about my appearances beforehand. I’d try to come up with some one-liners ahead of time. I’d maybe even practice my delivery of certain points I wanted to make before I went on to make sure I hit the big parts big. I’d get a little jolt of nervous excitement when taping something and Matt or whoever was producing said “we have speed,” which directly proceeded “and . . . action.” It all felt like a big deal.
Today, though? It was just kinda fun. I liked talking to Matt again. I liked being on a split screen with a guy as big as Tirico. I liked that I got a video clip out of it. My parents know what I do for a living, but I get the sense that they’ve never really felt that writing on the Internet is a real job. Back when I used to go on NBC Sports Network a lot they’d brag to their friends about their son on TV, so it was nice to be able to share the clip on Facebook so they can, in turn, share it with some person I don’t know who they insist I met when I was a child and, really, why don’t you remember them? It gives them something to do at least.
I even felt a little useful.
I can always find things to write about even if nothing is going on, but my industry as a whole is rather fucked at the moment due to the lack of sports. I liked that I was able to fill some time that they needed to fill on this new show they’re launching for that express purpose. I liked that I could help give something to viewers to watch, even if wasn’t actual sports. Even if it was only three minutes and twenty-seven seconds long. Even if I talked through my nose and lisped.
There are worse ways to spend your day during a pandemic.
(Feature Photo: David Banker, Wikimedia Commons)