Staying out there

I am thrilled to be in Distinction magazine twice in this latest edition – once for a story on artistic director Tom Quaintance and the Virginia Stage Company, and again with a quick review of a little gem of a restaurant, Clementine’s at Riverview. 

The link to the VSC story is here.

(I’ll link to the Clementine’s story ASAP when I can find it online. :/)

The more I do it, the more I appreciate my opportunities to stretch into new areas and challenge myself as a freelance feature writer. I still enjoy following and writing about sports, although not as much as, say, a decade ago. But back then I would have never foreseen myself diving into the guts of a theater-company’s comeback, profiles of Eastern Shore artists or the ins and outs of making bourbon in Virginia.

This new direction has been great so far, and I look forward to treading more different turf as 2019 unfolds. I’ve said this before, but I also plan to post on this blog much more often, touching on this and that and hopefully keeping my wits and writing chops sharper in between paid assignments. 

Curtis Strange, no longer the Open answer

A little golf talk here.

Brooks Koepka, a very good professional golfer, just won the U.S. Open for the second year in a row. This is a simple sentence that is more than it seems, because going back-to-back at the Open is a devilishly tough chore to accomplish for a number of reasons. The event moves each year is the main one, unlike the Masters. The United States Golf Association is notorious for its lunacy of monkeying with whichever course is in play to keep the winning score at or near par. Getting to peak performance level 365 days later is another reason.

It’s just hard, OK, even for the world’s best. In any event, very few men have won the U.S. Open in consecutive years. Koepka has pushed that list to seven, adding a name for the first time in 29 years.

You might have heard the last to do it was Curtis Strange, who was born in Norfolk, raised in Virginia Beach and went on to a world golf hall of fame career. Strange was a fierce, almost crazed competitor. He brought remarkable intensity to his job, fire that burned and flared and was impossible to sustain into his golfing twilight more than a decade ago. Now a broadcaster, Strange actually was the first media member to interview Koepka after his Sunday round, which was an interesting twist.

Interesting because Strange, at his zenith, had a far and wide reputation as being one of golf’s biggest jerks. It drove him to greatness as it drove away people outside his circle. The irony of him now making his living in the media is delicious. Strange’s arrogance followed him into his broadcasting career, never so much as when Strange, while still an active player, interviewed Tiger Woods as Woods launched his career in 1996. The “you’ll learn” interview. Watch it here and cringe. (Right or wrong, Strange has always stood by his remarks as being representative of fans who were incredulous over Woods’ own youthful confidence/arrogance.)

This is all to say I actually always liked Strange in my few dealings with him as a sports writer.

I came to writing about golf late in Strange’s career, when his mellowing, believe it or not, had begun. I’m pretty sure my first dealing with him was when he played the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 1999. I remember he was paired the first two rounds with Jack Nicklaus, and that one of his sons carried his bag. Strange missed the cut but was patient and gracious as he discussed the thrill of working with his son aside Nicklaus.

I interviewed Strange multiple times later on; when he came to Portsmouth to do a clinic at the Bide-a-Wee course he’d redesigned years earlier. I have a photo of he and I talking on the range. When he was the Ryder Cup captain in 2002, a losing one, but whatever. I prepared to cover that Cup at The Belfry in England, but alas my employer pulled the plug. :/ I WAS sent to Naples, Fla. to cover Strange’s senior tour debut in 2005, when it seemed apparent his heart wasn’t in it after enduring some personal struggles. That sense turned out correct; Strange was an indifferent senior player for only a few seasons. And once more to Florida in 2007 to write about Strange’s induction to the hall of fame.

I think the last time we spoke was in 2011 at Congressional outside D.C. when Strange, with ESPN at that time, analyzed Rory McIlroy’s U.S. Open victory for me for my column. In all those times, I never recall him directing a cross or impatient word toward me. Sarcastic, yes, but all in fun. My former colleague Jim Ducibella, for instance, who was at Augusta when Strange blew the Masters, can’t necessarily say that. Shudder.

So Curtis is through as a running footnote to history, at least as the U.S. Open is concerned. Some applaud, but I never begrudged him his time on that stage. However you regard Strange, a yearly curtain call for such rare achievement seemed fair by me.




An old story

I wrote a newspaper story nearly 12 years ago that evidently had the newspaper’s digital hit-meters buzzing today. Cyberspace is an odd animal.

The story is this one:

It’s truly a long story about a man and a woman. Cal Bowdler was an Old Dominion basketball player who was a first-round NBA draft pick who flamed out in three dubious years. His wife Brooke was a junkie. They were trying to work out a life that ultimately did not work out. Hearsay, but I am told Brooke appeared on the Dr. Phil show Friday and blamed her drug problem on her ex-husband. Certainly there is more that was said, and I don’t know why Brooke (formerly Tamara) warrented being on the show in the first place, so we will all consult Professor Google and perhaps see for ourselves. Viewers obviously already did that and resuscitated a cold, dusty tale.

Anyway, I was interested to hear that this story resurfaced for a day. I remember all the machinations of writing it, and I am happy with the final work that came from it all.

Can’t wait to see what floats to the surface next.

ODU football (circa 2007)

I came across this old column just now, foraging a cabinet for something else. It’s a pleasant surprise, in that it is actually one of my old columns that I like, because so many make go “meh” at best.

It’s about the day more than 10 years ago (!) that Bobby Wilder was introduced as the head coach of Old Dominion’s football team, then little more than a glow in the eye of the ODU athletics department. Today, the Monarchs are a contender in FBS Conference USA, play ACC opponents (no W’s yet, but maybe soon) and have a stadium renovation on tap.

I have decent recall of introduction day; the swirl of activity and buzz in the Constant Center, Wilder, a longtime assistant at Maine, where he played quarterback, showing up with hair and an impressive 5 o’clock shadow to give his first rah-rah pep talk, me softly approaching Wilder’s welcoming wife Pam to pose some questions as her husband did other interviews afterwards. For sure, I remember his energy and his promise to bring it every day, around the state, to start carving a name for ODU football.

It seemed a daunting chore, for sure. But ODU fan or foe, you have to judge the past decade a wild success, probably beyond even what Wilder, the most self-assured of men, saw in his quiet moments back then.

Here’s what I wrote for the Feb. 13, 2007 edition:


Key to success may lie in a schmooze transition

NORFOLK — One interesting fact on an afternoon filled with them at Old Dominion: New football coach Bobby Wilder and his wife, Pam, operate a cable-free household in Bangor, Maine.

Sports are Bobby’s life. But, Pam Wilder said, ensuring their two young sons are undistracted readers is worth an ESPN vacuum. Not that the coach himself avoids the temptation 24/7.

“A few times he’ll say, “Oh, important meeting, gotta go,’ ” Pam Wilder said, laughing. “Hmm, there’s a game on right now and he has to go? I’m not a rocket scientist, but I’m not stupid either.”

It’ll be hard not to learn a volume of interesting things about Bobby Wilder over the next couple of years. His preference in defensive line schemes. His taste in office decor and uniform styles. Heck, boxers or briefs maybe. Anything and everything.

If there’s a radio or TV, soapbox or service-club meeting near  you, Bobby Wilder is going to be on it or at it — in the words of athletic director Jim Jarrett — “sell, sell, selling” ODU football.

Questions? Wilder will take questions until  your well of curiosity runs dry.

Comments? He’ll comment till the cows AND the sheep come home.

Pitches to move tickets and luxury suites for ODU football in 2009? Wilder will wind up and deliver all day for you — until it’s time to go wind up and deliver for you neighbor.

“He’s perfect for this,” promised Pam Wilder. “For him, it just rolls right off, he’s so comfortable  doing it.

“I think it comes from probably all the years of being an athlete, being in the spotlight, being a quarterback, having to think on your feet. It just comes natural to him.”

That’s huge because Wilder, 42, is a coach with no one to coach until — clear the calendar, Monarchs fans — 4 p.m. next Feb. 6. That’s the time and date of his first open tryout for walk-ons for his first team.

Every new college coach does community breakfasts, campus lunches and donor dinners till his belt expands a notch. But being the coach of a program that owns one football — the souvenir pigskin Wilder toted Monday at his media introduction — means never being able to say, “Sorry, can’t make it.”

Garden club? Preschool assembly? Car-wash ribbon cutting? Wilder has scissors, and he’s not afraid to use them.

“That’s primarily what  I’ve talked to Dr. Jarrett about: keeping that momentum behind the program,” Wilder said. “Building the war chest, so to speak, not only of support financially, but support from the people who are excited about the program.”

So many ODU people he’s already chatted up, Wilder said, “want to know what we’re going to do offensively and defensively, but they also want to know where am I going to park on game day?

“I’m not sure where I’M going to part on game day right now. So there’s going to be a 2 1/2 year-period where we’re trying to work our way through all of that.”

Schmooze his way through it is more like it, with boosters and potential boosters, of course. But even more importantly, with the raw material of his construction project: a state full of recruits and coaches who’ve never heard of this 17-year assistant from Maine.

Yet. Give him till next Tuesday.

“I plan on getting a database of every high school coach in Virginia,” Wilder said, “and I plan on being in touch with everybody as soon as I can.”

Cable sports, Wilder has shown he can live without, sort of. But a fully charged cell battery? A new coach in a new land can have no greater friend.



Out, but very much about

I hate that I have been absent for the longest stretch since beginning my blog a couple years ago.

If I am a writer, I need to write. Right?

I apologize if you have checked in here over the summer and found nothing new. I understand if it’s been a while since you tried.

It isn’t as if there’s been nothing to write about. Let’s see. Well, Dee and I got engaged in the Eiffel Tower in July. Let’s start there. 🙂 It was during a European swing through Amsterdam and Bruges, the postcard-perfect old Euro village in Belgium. Dee set up a dinner for us in the tower, so the time and place could not have been more perfect. We came back with Eiffel Tower mementos and a thrilling future before us.

Traveling has been big. We visited Houston in June; Dee’s brother, sister-in-law and other relatives live in the area. Two months later, we watched the Hurricane Harvey devastation of that huge metro area with jaws agape, on edge while waiting for text messages from Mickey or Teri to say they were all right, stunned to see the photos of the tree that crushed the roof of Dee’s aunt and uncle’s house.

Where else? Yes, Dee took her kids (and grandkid, and me) to Vancouver, renting a rambling old house in pricey Point Grey that overlooked English Bay, with its busy traffic of container and cruise ships. Downtown Vancouver sat off to the right. The view, the entire vibe, was very San Franciscan. Houses on a hill, bridges spanning the bay, fog and mist in the morning, light air due to lack of humidity. Vancouver has a huge TV and film industry, did you know that? It’s the setting for many shows and movies, subbing for someplace else. Johnny Depp was filming a movie around the corner. We loitered outside the house a couple of times, drawing narrowed brows from security. We saw nothing, but also were not arrested for ogling.

We got back, and left again. I always miss my kids, so after spending a few awesome days with Rachel in San Francisco in June, I planned a trip to Colorado to see Connor. It had been more than three months since I’d seen him. That’s about the outside of how long I want to go without seeing him or Rachel. And after having not done a triathlon, my new hobby/obsession, since June, I thought to piggyback a race with our visit. I looked and it so happened there was a race (Olympic distance) in Boulder, a ground-zero area for triathlete and triathlon training  in the U.S. What better place to test my progress and my will? I saw, I trained, I worried about the 5,000-plus-foot altitude — it was an issue, but not as bad as I feared. Bottom line, I thought I’d have to get fished out of the Boulder Reservoir a few minutes into the 1,500-meter swim leg. I was gasping, struggling to find a breath/stroke rhythm. I stopped a couple times to tread water. But I persevered, always the key in triathlons, and survived the swim, endured a tough bike ride with the portrait-like Flatiron mountains hulking on the horizon (a beautiful bonus) and battled leg cramps during a super-slow 10k run to finish. Connor and Dee were waiting with arms open and wide smiles at the end. I tear up still thinking about their love and support. What a great day.

This weekend, we’ll celebrate Dee’s birthday with some wine-tasting outside Charlottesville, one of my favorite places. What happened there a month ago breaks my heart. I don’t understand how the town came to be the involuntary host to people spewing such vileness, or why the latter has come to its present state as it is. After a while away, I was fortunate to visit Charlottesville last weekend, wearing my sports writer hat again for the Associated Press at a U.Va. football game. The day was beautiful, and I was filled with blessed memories of my time there with my two beautiful children. I was filled with gratitude for the days I’ve spent there, and lifted by the love and good fortune that surrounds me now.

Life is great. (So is Ollie, btw, if a little more hobbled due to his hip dysplasia/arthritis.) It is so full. I propose to return here more often to share and to say hi.





Fake news, 1998 style

The following is FAKE NEWS! It is NOT REAL!

If the term fake news had existed in 1998, perhaps we would have worked it into the April Fool’s Day story that appeared in the newspaper’s feature section. That’s right, we intentionally faked an outlandish story and ran it as if it was all true.

Man, was it a different time. Things were flush in the dead-tree publishing business. We felt our oats, so to speak. And the paper had run an April Fool’s joke or two before, so there was precedent. So the features editor, formerly the sports editor, had an idea to perpetrate another harmless, and hopefully humorous, joke on April 1. He asked me to take part, i.e. to write the thing. But write what? I huddled with him and few other features people about a week out.

We decided on the following theme — a symbol was going to replace the name Hampton Roads that everybody hated.

That and other kernals of truth sprinkled among the text — arguing mayors, breathless politicians yearning for a sports franchise — lured in and confused people, just as we intended, even though the story (which is way too long, in hindsight) grew more ridiculous as it went. We knew this by the nastygrams we got in the aftermath, including from the paper’s editor, who evidently was not in on the joke ahead of time.

And yet nobody got fired!

I wrote it as M.R. Gilltaye. Say it fast, without the first period. The advertising firm  was named AFD (April Fool’s Day). And one of our designers came up with not only the yellow arrow (I don’t have a reproduction, sorry), he actually photoshopped a picture of a helicopter carrying the huge, inverted arrow to the unveiling at MacArthur Center. Damn brilliance. You had to read all the way to the final sentence to learn for sure it was a gag, and even then it didn’t really slap you in the face. But there was a disclaimer next to the story that definitively did confirm the fakery. Ha ha ha, you people. Get it? Huh? Huh?

Anyway, I saved the stupid thing, and I post it here — probably against all newspaper copyright rules, but oh well — as an enjoyable blast from the past, even if it is perhaps only enjoyable to me.


April 1, 1988

Symbol To Replace Region’s Name. Goodbye “Hampton Roads”


By M.R. Gilltaye

Perhaps the most critical era of Southeastern Virginia dawns tonight with the unveiling of a new-age symbol to replace “Hampton Roads” as the prevailing identity for this region of 1.6 million people.

Six of the region’s mayors, and the president of the New York advertising firm that conceived the symbol at a cost of $3 million, will gather for a 7 p.m. ceremony at the MacArthur Center construction site in downtown Norfolk.

There, they will officially announce the retirement of Hampton Roads, the controversial and largely ineffective nickname that served the region locally and nationally for more than a decade.

In its place will be put a symbol, — a curved, upward pointing arrow, coincidentally resembling the universal traffic sing for “detour” –  that will represent the region, beginning immediately.

According to one region official who requested anonymity, the symbol “is overwhelmingly positive. It is emblematic of everything that is good and promising about our area and our people, about where we are and where we are going.”

It is also, the official admitted, “Our last, best hope at achieving regional consensus at the turn of the century. We hope this symbol is finally our ticket to the high quality of life, including a major-league sports franchise, that we all want and deserve.”

The symbol, the official said, was conceived with the wildly successful swoosh of the Nike athletic shoe company in mind. Also, The Artist (Formerly Known as Prince), who promotes himself with an untranslatable, but highly recognizable, symbol.

One look at those symbols, the official said, and people instantly know who and what they represent. “In our case the symbol will mean FHR, or Formerly Hampton Roads. We are to be referred to as FHR from this day forward.”

A strategic added bonus is that by resembling the detour sign, “FHR will receive incalculable free advertising around the world, ‘round the clock. Now it is up to our marketing people to make our brand internationally recognizable. When a woman in China sees the arrow, we want her to think, “I need to visit FHR.” The mind soars with possibilities.”

The symbol is the brainstorm of AFD Advertising, Manhattan marketing specialists who were contracted by the (Formerly ) Hampton Roads Partnership with public funds last year.

“I applaud the leaders of FHR for their incredible foresight and courage in taking this unprecedented step in municipal government,“ said Adam P. Feinbaum, AFD’s president.

“With this symbol as their trumpet, they will succeed in not only putting FHR on the map, but also in announcing that FHR is a bold and progressive location for businesses and families that only needs major sports to make it truly world class.

“Other up and coming cities have approached us about trading their names for symbols, but to my knowledge, FHR is the first to follow through”

In this case, necessity truly was the other of invention. In the spirit of regionalism, the mayors had met secretly for months, according to the official, trying to agree on a replacement for Hampton Roads.

All conceded that the nickname had failed miserably and, in fact, had created more confusion than clarification as to who what and where Hampton Roads was.

Apparently the deciding factor in changing the region’s name was a Gallup Poll of 3,689 households in the East and Midwest commissioned by the (Former) Hampton Roads Partnership. Asked to identify “Hampton Roads” on a map, a shocking 52% of adults pointed to various parts of the interstate highway system in 18 different states.

Seventeen percent actually said it was “somewhere in Virginia.” But 12 percent thought it was “a NASCAR track,” 9 percent pointed to waters off the island of Bermuda, and 8 percent answered “do not know/do not care.”

“That certainly was a swift kick in the pants, I must say,” the official said. “We knew it was bad. We just didn’t know how bad.”

The trouble was only starting, however. Repeated attempts by the mayors and their marketing arm to find a new, common name to tout the region’s charms proved prohibitive.

The provincial animosity that has scuttled a laundry list of would-be regional projects in the past flared mightily again, the official said, particularly between Norfolk’s Paul Fraim and Virginia Beach’s Meyera Oberndorf.

“At one point, when Meyera wasn’t looking, Paul actually winged her with a spitball and then pointed at (Portsmouth’s) Jim Holley,” the official said with a sigh. “Believe me, some of those meetings were not pretty.”

Ironically, words proved to be the effort’s undoing. The right ones for a new catch-name could not be found, or at least settled upon. (Among the suggestions that drew support were South Richmond, Just Folks, Thumbs Up!, Way North Carolina and, strangely, Palookaville.)

Finally, at hopeless loggerheads, the mayors turned to AFD, which has created and launched successful ad campaigns for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Preparation H suppositories and Jaclyn Smith Kmart sportswear.

“We noshed with HR leaders, rattled around in their heads, spent the day off the coast watching porpoises. I mean dolphins. Whatever,” Finebaum said. “What I got was, please help us. We got Nordstrom’s, but we need more. We want sports. We want fame. We want it all. Make us real. Make us hot.”

Symbol, Feinbaum thought. Not words.

“Words are passé. Words are dead,” Finebaum said. “Visuals. Graphics. Something to see, to touch, something to suck into your brain and let grow. It’s a very aggressive process, and so we produced a very aggressive symbol. Such synergy. It really is breathtaking.”

A surprisingly simple symbol, the up-arrow starts straight, bends to the right and precedes upward. Feinbaum said it perfectly captures the positive spirit and FHR can-do attitude.

“In my discussions, I was impressed when one official told me the skies here are never partly cloudy, but mostly sunny,” Feinbaum said. “Another said it wasn’t a hurricane destroying Sandbridge but a brief and welcome sprinkle. Hey give me that attitude, I’ll make money for you all day.”

Feinbaum said the arrow denotes progression and reward, an indirect path to an unlimited future. “It reaches people on a pre-language level,” Feinbaum said. “It is engagingly postmodern, but in a primitive yet sophisticated sense. It’s asking questions, not providing answers. Instead of ‘Why?’ it’s saying ‘Why not?’ ’’

The arrow’s move to the right, Feinbaum said, is most important and of great intrinsic value.

“We read left-to-right, do we not?” Feinbaum said. “Going right, the eyes are active, they’re alive, bing, bing, bing. Plus, from a sheet of other symbols we have in development, 70% of our focus group remembered the FHR symbol the next day. This is significant. This is good.”

Each area city will continue to operate as a separate, nameless entity, the regional official said, but it will share the symbol, if not water. The next logical step is the removal of Hampton Roads from all highway signage, maps, monuments and brochures, replacing those words with the symbol.

In addition, letters must be written under a symbolic letterhead to the commissioner of each major league sports league so there is no confusion when they award their next expansion franchises.

“This is the start of something monumental,” the official said. “The only problem is, we really picked a lousy day for the announcement. No one’s going to believe it.”


To Rosie, green grass and blue skies

I’ve been ruminating today in the wake of Dave Rosenfield’s death last night at 87. The legendary Tidewater/Norfolk Tides general manager was among the first

Norfolk sports figures, and longest-lasting by far, I met in my first week at the Norfolk newspaper in 1983.  

I liked his gruff, kindly, impatient, intelligent, know-it-all, generous, cheap, arrogant, bombastic, infuriating, scowling, needling, racist-joking, filthy-mouthing, kid-hating, never-ever-wrong, hilarious, snarky, deaf-as-a-post, totally genuine, contradictory self well enough — without really knowing him well at all, if that makes sense.

I think in 34 years I saw him once outside of a ballpark or a sports banquet, at a very long-ago lunch. I hadn’t spoken to him in more than two years, although I emailed him a couple of times over that period after he’d had some health scares. I never got a response, but I trust he received my well-wishes.

After leaving the regular sports ramble, I regret I didn’t drop by his office at Harbor Park to say hi, or make it a point to happen upon one of the weekly round-table lunches he enjoyed with other local sports figures. Wrapped up in my own woes and worries, I suppose.

I will miss Rosie – my preferred spelling of his nickname — like so many in Greater Norfolk, and today I riffle through vivid memories of our professional relationship.

It was early August and they gave the really green greenhorn a weekend assignment to cover some summer-league baseball championship at Met Park – known, of course, as Old Met Park since that dump was wrecking-balled in 1993.

I skulked to the far corner of that narrow press box low behind home plate, all of about 30 feet long, to set up shop for the game. It wasn’t a minute before I felt eyes from a hulking and, um, very portly man sizing me up. I gave a sideways glance as that form slowly approached.

“Hi,” he said, extending his meathook paw once employed as a college and minor-league catcher. “I’m Dave Rosenfield.”

Humma-da humma-da humma-da.

They’d told me to look for, and look OUT for, Dave before sending me onto his turf. It was totally like walking into a fiefdom. Dave was already a fixture, 20 years into his local minor-league baseball tenure. He owned a place and a career and a passion as much as anyone I have ever known.

I returned his hello, explained just a little bit about how I came to be in his presence that afternoon, and a relationship was struck. It was one that grew more familiar, and occasionally contentious, when I took over the Tides beat – then still a full-time, traveling, exhaustive grind — from George McClelland in 1988.

It was a fortuitous, for me, and rewarding association. Rosie loved to hear himself talk, and so he enjoyed holding court with coaches, major-league executives and reporters. For the latter, he was forever a go-to guy for honest commentary, unvarnished opinion and franker still, off-the-record truth as he saw it about sports, politics and scads of matters far-afield.

The remarkable, underlying constant was the knowledge that Rosie was one-degree-of-Kevin Bacon from pretty much any individual who ever played professional baseball. Ev-er. Think about that. It’s a hell of a thing. He knew everybody and everybody knew him. His kind is down to a precious few.

I know I pissed him off many times with my reporting and writing. I scooped the Mets’ announcement of September call-ups once and he and the Mets’ GM tore me a new one. He lectured me early in my coverage tenure about describing the Tides’ play as “miserable” in print after they’d played a particularly miserable game.

During a week of rainouts, I quoted the groundskeeper about what a stink dead earthworms beneath the field tarp created around the home-plate seats. Rosie was not pleased.

Another reporter and I bought plane tickets and invited ourselves along to Shea Stadium when he and the Tides president went to talk about the Mets’ demand for a new Tides stadium or else. Rosie harrumphed and vowed to give us no information, but he didn’t ban us from the Shea offices. We ended up sharing an airport cab both ways. And I’m certain he shared plenty of information.

I disappointed him badly at least once, too, although he never said so. I forget the occasion, maybe his 50th year in the business, and I wrote a profile of him that did not emerge as the puffery he expected, but a more warts-and-all recasting of his local omnipotence and contradictions. When I saw him, I could tell it had hurt him. But no one ever said the story wasn’t accurate and fair.

Throughout, and even thereafter, Dave remained a friend, a supporter and an unforgettably engaging character. He cracked himself up with story upon story, usually punctuated with his huge thunder-crack of a laugh. He ripped into employees up and down. It could not have been easy to work for one so demanding and temperamental, or even to be his close friend. I know people who were estranged from him for years before mending fences.

Yet he somehow fostered surprising loyalty. Rosie being Rosie, if you knew him even a little bit, was a great, never-dull and stunningly consistent show. During his full-time run as GM – before emeritus status the last few years – he missed a very small handful of games. I am fuzzy on this, but I think he missed just one – if any at all — in the late ‘80s when his first wife died. The ballpark was his solace and his sustenance, through every workaday chore. He even created and hand-wrote the entire International League schedule for decades.

What the hell? That’s crazy.

I enjoyed seeing him around the ballpark. I enjoyed his pontifications. I enjoyed Rosie being Rosie in its entirety, and I file it as a highlight of my journalistic life.

Regards, and sympathy, to his family, friends and the entire Tides front office.







Irreplaceable Arnie

As a sports writer, a golfer and an avid golf fan, I have been fortunate enough to cross paths and interview such hall of famers as Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Curtis Strange and Fred Couples.

Never, somehow, Arnold Palmer. arnold-palmer-07

I’m sad about that one.

I’ve seen snippets from Palmer’s funeral today, and the love and respect emanating from that ceremony was palpable. I’ve read retrospectives of Palmer as a golfer, a business-savvy professional athlete when no one else had the vision or guts to negotiate off the strength of their place and persona, a marketing genius, a father, grandfather, a philanthropist, course designer and a global citizen.

They eulogized Palmer as a pioneer, one of those naturally swashbuckling individuals who sucked the oxygen out of every room he entered, who schmoozed as easily with queens and princes as with gallery hounds of any age. Who men wanted to be and women wanted to be with.

I can imagine Palmer was one of those people who never met a stranger. Who greeted everyone, especially as his legend matured, with a wink or a kind word, fully aware that the moment being shared would be indelible for the one he was sharing it with. He could never have a down or an off moment, and I’ve never heard tell of that happening.

It chokes me up to see the video of his attempted last press conference at his last U.S. Open, at Oakmont near his Latrobe, Pa., home, in 1994. He couldn’t get through it. Same for his final Masters, 10 years later.

This is a nice tribute the Golf Channel crew, including author John Feinstein, put together today.

Arnold Palmer made professional golf a behemoth through his magnetism, integrity and trailblazing athletic courage. God bless him. God bless The King.


Working the AT . . .

This was a really fun story to work on, and different for me. I shadowed the Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club for a weekend day last spring as its members performed maintenance on approximately 11 miles of that legendary woods and wilderness. I has no idea such a club existed, let alone the extent of its work.

I enjoyed meeting the people who give of themselves tirelessly to commune and connect with the natural, symphonic beauty of Virginia.

The story ran in print in the great Distinction magazine and on its website. Thanks for checking it out.


When paradise needs upkeep, the Appalachian Trail Club hikes in.

by TOM ROBINSON photography by TODD WRIGHT

They gathered at Saturday’s gray dawn, deep in Virginia’s wooded heart. Seventy-five men, women and children from the Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club clambered from tents scattered about a picnic ground near Nellysford.

Eleven miles of Appalachian Trail entrusted to their club’s care since 1973 – from Reid’s Gap to the Tye River on a map – sorely needed love.

The punch list was lengthy. Downed trees blocked the hiking path. Conduits to underground springs were dry. Covered shelters were dirty, to say nothing of their privies. White blazes on trees that mark the path needed fresh paint. Invasive garlic mustard plants were overgrown.

So the Tidewater club ate breakfast, teamed up into crews and got down to it.

Joe Turlo sawed stumps at the Maupin Field shelter area. A veteran hiker who traverses Maryland’s 40 miles of Appalachian Trail every June, he knows stump-littered shelters are downright inhospitable.

Greg Seid and Marty Vines puzzled over a dusty spring pipe in the creek bed nearby. The stream occasionally runs dry, but hikers always need fresh water. They dug through dirt and leaves to the source and installed a fresh length of PVC pipe. Water slowly began to slide from its exposed mouth.

And God love Evelyn Addington, who did privy duty. Armed with cleaning tools and enviable courage, the retired teacher swept cobwebs and made multiple treks for stream water with which to flood the floor and scrub the commode.

It shined when she was through, as best a weather-beaten outhouse can shine. And she had no complaints. When you walk or work the AT, the task becomes all-consuming.

An “intense sense of pride” motivates the 31 clubs that help maintain the rugged, 2,190-mile trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine, says the Tidewater club’s president, Juliet Stephenson. “We don’t hold the deed, but each club feels like it owns their section.”

Appalachian Trail ClubSeven Virginia clubs pitch in to preserve and protect the world’s longest continuous hiking trail. They partner with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and various state agencies to ensure that the trail – “its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage,” according to the conservancy mission – remains open to all forever.

Tidewater’s club absorbed its stretch from two small central Virginia clubs 43 years ago. Its members are quick to note their club is the farthest removed from the trail, some 200 miles.

The maintenance crews aim to keep the trail passable “without undue difficulty,” according to the conservancy standard. As a visual, workers picture clearing space for a hiker toting a 4-by-8-sheet of plywood.

But the Tidewater members don’t just clear the Appalachian Trail. They also maintain 23 miles in the St. Mary’s Wilderness, the White Rocks Trail and the Mau-Har Trail. The latter is a three-mile side trail to the Appalachian Trail, a loop the Tidewater club built to connect its shelter areas at Maupin Field and Harpers Creek.

The Mau-Har itself provides a challenging day-hike that lures a steady flow of outdoor enthusiasts. Overcrowding, in fact, is a growing concern among trail clubs and requires their added vigilance.

“But I’d rather know the trail is being enjoyed than see it unused and unappreciated,” Stephenson says.

It was Benton MacKaye’s appreciation for nature as a human escape from urban stresses that launched the Appalachian Trail nearly a century ago. A New England regional planner and conservationist, he conceived a connected series of study and farming camps from New Hampshire to North Carolina. Other enthusiasts embraced that vision, and the trail ultimately lengthened through 14 states.

The trail’s first path was blazed in upstate New York in 1923, but the full route from Georgia’s Mount Oglethorpe to Maine’s Mount Katahdin didn’t open until 1937. The southern terminus became Springer Mountain, Georgia, in the early ’60s.

A Pennsylvanian named Earl Shaffer completed the first thru-hike in 1948. He reversed direction in 1965 and walked the trail north to south. Even then he wasn’t finished. In 1998, he did the entire journey again at age 79, four years before he died.

Of the trail’s 14 states, Virginia claims the largest swath, 544 miles, roughly a quarter of the AT. According to the conservancy, the trail draws 3 million visitors a year.

Each year, a few thousand begin thru-hikes, fueled by the canon of trail books and films, including Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. A “walk” is not for the faint or ambivalent. The trail is taxing physically and emotionally, fraught with perilous weather, wildlife and human interaction. About half of thru-hikers quit within the first 30 miles. Only one in four completes the journey.

Conservancy ridge runners, equipped with satellite phones, are a presence in more-heavily traveled areas to lend comfort and direction. Still, hikers are known to tragically lose their way. Last fall, the remains of a female hiker who disappeared in Maine three years earlier were discovered, about a half-mile from the trail.

Pat Tilson, a thru-hiker from Deltaville, Virginia, happened upon the Tidewater workers during their labor. Stopping to chat, he was invited to the club’s camp dinner. He accepted the meal, a shower at the Sherando Lake Recreation Area and a ride back to the Harpers Creek shelter for the night.

“It’s a strange sense of community out here,” he said. “You meet people you think you’d have nothing in common with in the real world. But you sit with them in a shelter, you have no idea what their real name is, and you hear their stories – where to stay, where to avoid, did you hear what happened to Grandma? And Grandma is some guy. It’s fun.”

Tilson said he started in Pennsylvania and was attempting a flip-flop hike. Flip-floppers cover one trail segment, then drive or fly back to where they started or to the opposite terminus to complete their miles.

That’s how Stephenson did her thru-hike in 2010. She started with her sister, who abandoned the journey after 1,400 miles. Stephenson soldiered solo through the final 800.

“It changed me profoundly,” said Stephenson, a former Navy cryptographer who became a master gardener for Norfolk’s Hermitage Museum and Gardens. “I knew I couldn’t work inside anymore.”

Appalachian Trail ClubAs president, she wants to raise awareness of a club that offers far more than maintenance trips to darkest Virginia. It also clears trails locally, within First Landing State Park, False Cape State Park, New Quarter Park and Sandy Bottom Nature Park.

For $20 annual dues, it organizes a wide menu of outdoor activities, and holds seminars on such things as camping etiquette, map skills and wilderness first aid. A caveat: Eco-activists need not sign up to circulate petitions and such. The club is strictly recreational.

“Half of the people are pretty involved in environmental groups,” longtime club member Bob Adkisson says. “But you do that stuff on your own.”

His preoccupation is the stone cabin the club owns on 15 secluded acres near White Rocks Trail. It has no electricity or running water, and on a stormy night, it’s a dicey downhill walk to the privy.

But Adkisson, the cabin chairman, says the price is right: $5 a day for members who participate in maintenance. About 80 of the club’s membership of 425 are considered active.

“Hopefully we can get more young teens and 20-year-olds out here,” Stephenson says. “I think of it as planting a seed.’”

Rosanne and Douglas Cary get immediate payoff on their maintenance trips. They are certified sawyers, timber cutters trained by the forest service. Blowdowns, fallen trees that block passage, are common. The Carys, husband and wife, are among two dozen members who are certified to cut and clear timber.

Mostly, though, they do it by hand. Almost all of Tidewater’s trail mileage is designated wilderness, which the forest service vows will stay “untrammeled and free from human control.”

That means no power tools.

The Carys and their four hard-hatted colleagues faced a doozy of a chore. A huge oak had uprooted and crashed across the trail. Fallen timber isn’t automatically removed. If sawyers determine it can be stepped over without undue effort, it usually is let alone.

This one left no room for discussion. Like forensic specialists, the team surveyed the scene for ways the timber and hanging limbs might tumble.

The sawyers determined the severed trunk would roll through the path and into a standing tree. They eyed the rooted end with suspicion, however, fearing a kick. Two-person crosscut crews took arduous turns working through the trunk for 90 minutes before taking a break. Upon returning to the task, the sawyers worked another 30 minutes before Douglas Cary moved to the uphill side to cut alone and avoid being in the roll path.

At last, the trunk emitted a telltale crackle. Cary looked back to his wife: “Do you want to do the honors?”

Rosanne Cary was thrilled. She leaned into her saw as Douglas held the back of her belt for safety. When the trunk snapped and crashed, the sawyers whooped as if they had scored a touchdown.

“My legs are shaking,” she said.

The episode made for a gleeful postmortem that night at the camp’s buffet dinner. The afternoon’s drenching rain had dampened the picnic benches, but not the enthusiasm.

“I was a foo-foo girl growing up,” said Cindy Wong. “My country club ladies really don’t get this.”

A few years ago, Wong said she got a wild hair to hike in the Grand Canyon. To train, she worked out in a gym rather than practicing hiking. Big mistake.

“I lost two toenails,” she said.

That won’t happen again. The club, she said, has made her outdoors-savvy. She has even become a high-pointer, out to visit the highest point of elevation in every state.

She has 31 to go.

“I don’t have any desire to be a thru-hiker, though,” Wong said. “Three days in that woods, I gotta come out to civilization. I can only be but so hard-core.”


Way-back Machine (cont’d)

The latest in my continuing series of running across old sports columns and re-running them here, probably against all copyright rules and all that crap . . .

De-junking around the house – specifically packing up stuff in my daughter’s old room so the painter can do his thing – I found a column my kid clipped from the paper and pinned to a cork board. It is from the summer of 2006. I read it again for the first time in years. Naturally, it made me shed a tear or two of dad-love, which is what this silly column about golf is really about.

I pulled it from the archives. I hope you like it.


We Lost a Few Golf Balls — and Found Ourselves

I’m told by the PGA of America that this is “Take Your Daughter to the Course” Week.

I do what I’m told.

My 15-year-old and I drove to a golf course. We brought our Gatorades and applied our sunscreen. I reached into the trunk and fished out my clubs.

“I’m already hot and tired,” the girl said. “Just so you know.”

Did I mention that my kid doesn’t actually play golf? That she thinks golf is as stupid as pickled beets? That when she catches me watching golf, she rolls her eyes and mutters some form of, “How can you watch that?”

And that on most days she’d accept a six-hour ban from (Editor’s note: myspace??!!) over having anything remotely to do with golf?

“I know why you want me to play golf with you,” she said with a snarky smile. “To make yourself look good for once.”

Did I mention that I love to play golf but don’t actually play real great? That I can coach some sports halfway decently, but that golf isn’t one of them? And that I had hoped my girl and I would get our nine-hole round at Lambert’s Point off to just a little better start?

It probably didn’t help that, as we left the car, I had her strap on my bag so she could get the full “caddie experience.” She took four wobbly steps toward the clubhouse.

“I’m not a mule,” she announced, and released her burden — a broad hint that walking nine was preposterously out of the question.

The cart saved the day. The girl is a few months from getting her learner’s permit. She wants to drive more than she wants unlimited text messaging.

“If I could,” she said, “I’d buy a golf cart and use it as a car.”

Things were looking up. We rented her clubs and jumped behind the wheel. First stop, the practice range, since it had been a while since I’d dragged her onto a course.

Obviously, she needed one of my easy-to-understand refreshers on the golf swing’s critical points: grip, ball positioning, posture, turning her shoulders, taking the club back, bringing it through square, shifting her weight, understanding the relationship between the length of her arms’ hypotenuse and the angle of the sun.

She sprayed a few along the ground when she didn’t miss the ball altogether.

“Why is golf always harder than it looks?” she grumped.

Sure, and I guess that’s dad’s fault, too, right?

So anyway, we started to play, because that’s what we’d by God come to do.

On the first hole, I failed miserably to coach her out of a greenside bunker — until about her sixth swipe, when she cracked a laser over the green and down a hill into Lambert’s Point’s ample gorse. Suddenly, we couldn’t stop laughing.

Suddenly, it looked as if it might be a great day after all.

We whiffed and flailed — I pleaded a shoulder injury, OK? We lost tons of balls in the high grass and the ravines. The girl drove. We didn’t keep score — who could count that high? The girl drove some more. The course was empty and Mulligan-friendly, so we took advantage. We giggled and goofed and fell down like the teen she is and the one I haven’t been for 30 years.

And the kid proved to be a supportive partner: When I took waaay too literally one hole’s printed instructions to aim my tee shot right, she chirped a bubbly, “Well, you listened to the sign.”

Turns out the girl can talk smack, putt and drive. A cart, I mean.

“For the record,” the journalist’s kid said as we neared the end, “the golf cart was my favorite part.”

Still, by the ninth, she was proud of the little half-wedge shot she’d worked on, popping it up and dropping it gently on the green in the general vicinity of where she’d aimed.

“That was fun, sort of,” the girl said as we headed for the parking lot and to an air-conditioned lunch. “But even if I had a future in golf, I don’t think I’d want a future in golf.”

Hmm. I’m thinking that’s not exactly the feel-good response that “Take Your Daughter to the Course” Week was born to bring.

So how come our couple of hours on the course together felt so good?