Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Top five work moments

Tomorrow afternoon, I'll be taking a break from Redskins training camp preparations to go cover the Nationals-Giants series opener at RFK. It will likely be my first and only chance to ever see Barry Bonds play, for better or worse. No matter what you think of the guy, he is among the very best of baseball's all-time hitters. He's also a man that, for better or worse, defines baseball's steroid era. (The thrust of stories of tainted summers of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa would have died down a long time ago, until suspicions of Bonds raised the questions again.) I'll be going on Thursday as well, but Bonds rarely plays a day game after a night game, and Thursday's a day game.

So no matter what happens, this will be one of the days I can tell my grandkids about: I got to cover Barry Bonds. And that's always a cool feeling, knowing that you'll remember a day for years and years to come.

With that in mind, here are the top five coolest events I have ever covered:

1. Men's Final Four, Indianapolis, 2006. A no-brainer. Firsts on a number of fronts: first time I've ever flown to an assignment, first time I've ever been at an event that completely held the gaze of the sporting nation.

Two colleagues - former Pot News writer Kipp Hanley and photographer Ana Pimsler - were on the George Mason train. Kipp and Ana had driver to Dayton to cover their first- and second-round wins over North Carolina and Michigan State. I parachuted into the coverage during the Sweet 16 regional in Washington, covering their wins over Wichita State and Connecticut, one of the greatest upsets in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Watching the Patriots cut down the nets was as surreal a scene as one could imagine; the little team from Fairfax had just beaten a team with four NBA draft picks, two of whom were in the top 12.

Every day and every night was a blast. Whether we were working or out on the town, we made the most of it. While it was sad to see Mason lose in the national semifinals to eventual champ Florida, it was as good a time as one can have and still be working.

2. Presidents Cup, Gainesville, Va., 2005. Though this was perhaps the most strenuous event I'd covered, it was well worth it. The Presidents Cup is similar to the Ryder Cup, except the United States plays a team of non-European stars like Vijay Singh.

Earlier in 2005, I got a chance to play the Robert Trent Jones course where the event was held. I remember hacking around thinking it was the hardest course I'd ever played. Then, to watch some of the best golfers in the world slay the course was amazing. On one early hole, a medium-length par-3 over water with an intimidating bunker to the right, Tiger Woods hit a shot that landed 15 feet from the hole and looked as if he'd just stepped on an ant.

One hole later provided the signature moment for me. Woods, playing against two-time U.S. Open champ Retief Goosen, took on a par-5 dogleg right on the next hole. Both golfers were on the green in two. Goosen drained a 45-foot putt for eagle; Woods missed a 15-footer for eagle as the ball grazed by the hole. (Well, there was one other signature moment. The victorious U.S. team had downed a few celebratory beers before their final press conference. As they filed out of the room, I got a slap on the back. I turned around to hear, "Hey man, good to see you!" from Phil Mickelson.)

A final sad note: While taking the media/VIP bus to the course one day, we were on the same ride as Scott Verplank's parents as well as Chris DiMarco's parents. I was saddened to hear DiMarco's mom, Norma, passed away on July 4.

3. Cleveland at Baltimore, ALDS, 1996. This was my first welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment.

Our sports editor had somehow gotten credentials for the game. Being young and single with nothing better to do, I told him I would make the trip.

At one point, I stood on the field listening to a lecture on MLB salary structures with former Indians and Rangers general manager John Hart. I was part of a small pack of reporters. Among them was someone from the Sporting News, Pedro Gomez (now of ESPN, then of the Arizona Republic) and Jayson Stark (now of ESPN, then of the Philadelphia Inquirer).

The singular welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment was standing four feet from Stark while the JumboTron was playing a taped interview of Stark.

4. Pocono 500, Long Pond, Pa., 2000. Race-winner Jeremy Mayfield used a last-lap bump of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt to win at Pocono. Earnhardt had been known for bumping people out of the way to earn a win, and Mayfield returned the favor on Pennsylvania's 2.5-mile tri-oval.

That was also one of the final times I saw Earnhardt race. I left my hometown paper in the fall of 2000, moving to Northern Virginia. I was unable to make it to the fall race at Richmond that year, and Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500 the following February.

5. Green Bay at Washington, 2004. Like tomorrow's game, I knew this would be my one chance to see Brett Favre play. I had the date circled ever since the schedule was announced.

For me, Favre's most memorable moment was an incomplete pass. From near his own 20, he rolled out to his left - not the best throwing position for a right-handed quarterback. Halfway between the hash and the sideline, Favre stopped, wound up and heaved a pass downfield. The ball traveled about 80 yards in the air - a distance that few people could reach if they had a running start.

The ball fell innocently to the turf, but the buzz in the press box was unmistakable.

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