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I had my life all plotted by age 6. I was going to replace Mickey Mantle in centerfield at Yankee Stadium. I was going to put on the pinstripes, grab a Louisville Slugger and smash baseballs into the upper deck of the House That Ruth Built. But my inability to hit the fastball, the curveball, the knuckleball, the beach ball—you name it—derailed my plans to play for the Bronx Bombers.
No problem. I merely moved on to my next out-of-this-world dream. I was going to follow John Glenn’s lead and become an astronaut. I was going to go where no man had gone before, maybe even zoom to the moon. However, a fear of heights and a lack of scientific aptitude kept me stuck on the launch pad, so it was on to dream No. 3.
I was going to embark on a quest for new frontier and become the president of the United States, just like John F. Kennedy. I was going to utter unforgettable lines such as, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” But my political career met its demise when I lost my sixth-grade election by a handful of votes.
In retrospect, I’m grateful that none of those fantasies became reality, because in their place I discovered my true calling, my dream job, as a sportswriter. As Yogi Berra might have said, sometimes your dreams don’t come true in order for your dreams to come true.
The life-changing moment for me occurred 41 years ago yesterday when I received my first byline in a daily newspaper. A story I had written about an American Legion baseball game appeared in my hometown paper, the Rome Daily Sentinel. I still remember sweating bullets over that game account, even though I had hours to write it. I also vividly recall how excited I was to see my name above that story the next day.
One of the paper’s veteran reporters couldn’t help but notice my elation. “Uh-oh,’’ he joked to a colleague. “Looks like this young man has ink coursing through his veins.” Man, was his diagnosis ever on target. Four decades later, you’ll still detect ink if you draw my blood.
Although I was never great at sports, I was always passionate about them. Early on, I enjoyed reading columns and feature stories about athletes and coaches. I began gravitating to gifted wordsmiths such as Red Smith, Robert Creamer, Roger Kahn and Frank Deford, each of whom had a way with words and was able to take you beyond the box scores and humanize his subject.
At some point I guess I developed an aptitude for being a halfway decent storyteller. I’m clearly indebted to my mom. She was a voracious reader who devoured four books a week and had a wonderful way of condensing each story. I’m also grateful for the teachers and coaches who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.
What a ride it has been—the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the feats I’ve witnessed. I was there when Frank Reich engineered the most improbable comeback in NFL history, Joe Carter ended a World Series with a home run, Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan staged their tawdry figure skating soap opera, Curtis Strange claimed his second consecutive U.S. Open title at Oak Hill, Scott Norwood missed that field goal in Super Bowl XXV and Michael Phelps won his record-setting eighth gold medal. I’ve chronicled Michael Jordan winning a game at the buzzer, Abby Wambach heading in a gold-medal-deciding goal, Syracuse University shooting its way to an NCAA basketball title, Jim Kelly resurrecting the Bills, and the closing of Silver Stadium and the opening of Frontier Field.
I’ve been fortunate to interview most of the biggest names in sports. But it’s often been conversations with ordinary people doing extraordinary things that resonated most strongly with me. I’ll never forget how former McQuaid Jesuit coaches Mike Fennell and Bob Schwartz taught me and my readers how to live while dying. I’ll always remember how Jason McElwain, better known to the world as J-Mac, proved that no hurdle, even autism, is too daunting to prevent you from realizing your goals. I still smile when I think about Rochester toastmaster extraordinaire Jerry Flynn, who lost his vocal cords to cancer but never lost his ability to make us roar with laughter.
Along the way, I’ve stood at the end of a runway as a B-52 thundered over my head, scaled the Great Wall of China, ridden a bus with a bunch of young and still innocent minor-league baseball players, and played the mascot Spikes at a Red Wings game—lending credence to the notion that my columns occasionally were for the birds. I’ve conducted interviews not only in ballparks and arenas but in maximum-security prisons, on the festive streets of a Norwegian Olympic village and near the charred rubble of south-central L.A. just months after the riots tore that neighborhood asunder.
I’ve participated in the technological revolution of the sportswriting business. In 1973, we used typewriters, pica poles and glue pots to put newspapers together. Hash tags were number signs. Now, with computers, the Internet, smartphones and iPads, news and opinion are instantaneous and often condensed to 140-character tweets. It has dramatically changed sportswriting, for better and worse.
Although I didn’t replace Mickey Mantle in centerfield, explore outer space like John Glenn or make it to the White House like JFK, my journalism career enabled me to interview the legendary Yankee slugger as well as an astronaut (Rochester’s own Pam Melroy) and to cover a president (Barack Obama this spring in Cooperstown).
Famed New York City columnist Jimmy Breslin once said that a writer is like a pitcher; that there are only so many words in a writer’s head and only so many pitches in a pitcher’s arm. Here’s hoping I have many more good words in my head, because there are so many stories still to tell, including that grand tale about a certain cursed franchise finally winning a Super Bowl.
Award-winning columnist Scott Pitoniak has authored 17 books.
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