The Wedge, or how to continually fail in the business and still succeed

It’s a simple question that we all wrestle with from time to time. How do you know when you’ve “made it?”

I’ve been credentialed with the Flyers on a steady basis with several outlets since 2005. I’ve worked in all levels of the game, from calling high school hockey in the Lower Bucks league for a radio station owned by Merrill Reese on up to throwing elbows with the best and the worst in the biz in a crowded, sweaty host locker room during a playoff series involving the Pittsburgh Penguins.

My work has been published online in the United States and Canada, and somehow reaches India every once in a while. But after almost 15 years, I have no idea where I stand, how I’m perceived, and if I really set out to do what I wanted and accomplish what I wanted. All I know for sure is today is another day I make a living, and then again tomorrow, and though I make mistakes and edit the mistakes of others, and sometimes come up with a brilliant idea that maybe 50 people will ever know about, the only person who will get to decide whether or not I continue making a living at this, is the one writing this piece.

A significant portion of this uncertainty lies in the non-traditional path I forged while just trying to stay active and viable and seeing the years race by with other luckier former classmates and contemporaries take their risks and see the pay off. I am just about at the other end of the spectrum from the point I began. There’s a distinct feeling that this is as far as I will go, and I have to come to terms with that after that feeling has been reinforced repeatedly in spite of all my hard work, travel, promotion and dealing with others in the profession superseding my love of the game and ability to stick with it for a long-term career.

As far as I can tell, there’s about a Baker’s Dozen individual steps you can take in order to be known in the writing end of this business — provided you do things by the book and go straight through without stopping.

There’s your first assignment, your first by-line, your first feature, your first column, your first credentials, your first repeated credentials, your first conversations with fellow press-boxers that aren’t just introductions, your first invitations to contribute to other sites than your own, your appearances on podcasts, your first full-season credentials with nifty lanyard, then internet TV shows, cable TV programs and national TV shows.

In this age of new media, if you want to do this because it’s fun and you get to live out your dreams, you’re probably gonna hit a dead end at the eighth step. If you intend to have a full-fledged career (lasting longer than your 20s) you’re going to have to find ways to break through to the next five.

A hidden 14th step, which I hope still remains on the path to legitimacy in the years to come, is to be allowed to make the transition from new media to traditional print, which is still how the game is played now from the perspective of “in-demand talent” you hear on radio and see on television.

Success is a relative term, and it’s up to you to figure out what that means and how to attain it. Nothing in this business is given to you, and while you need to go out and take it, remember that unlike other careers, it will take more out of you than you may be willing or capable to give. That’s where the importance of doing things right, and in the right order, and most importantly without burning bridges or being too much of a push-over comes in. Refer to the order of the above list.

Dues? You can be damn sure I paid ‘em. And you should be paying them, too, Messrs. Roddy, Russo, Boehmer, Janet, Zulewski, Abbott, O’Connor, Kuhns, Siciliano, Bernot, Cattai, Greenblatt, Ricciardi, Vuotto, Forsythe, Christmann, Cordell, along with Missus O’Reilly, Monhollan, Nearhos, Pollock, and everyone else I’ve forgotten. The Flyers cred is not an end unto itself, so don’t let how easily and quickly you’ve gained it go to your heads. There is much more work to be done.

The proliferation of hockey blogs and sites which has gained access to NHL press boxes has effectively cut out this formative process and I’m convinced that’s not so much a great idea. When I was 22 and coming off a year-plus of engineering/broadcasting BC hockey all the way up to the Frozen Four, I never dreamed the next step would (or could) be immediate entry into the Bruins or Flyers press box.

In 2000, leaping into new media in the big leagues fresh from school without any other professional training simply wasn’t an option, and as I recounted in the 1st column of this series, the first step towards working back to the Show was to toil in a low minor-league city hundreds of miles from home. After effectively failing in that, it took five more years before I lucked into a Flyers credential while working at WRTI to fulfill the final credits for my Master’s degree. And it was two more years from there until I was able to be established with repeated credentials and locker room access.

In the meantime, I snagged every single opportunity I could, making so many sideward jumps that my hips are permanently out of joint: High school PBP on baseball, basketball and hockey for a bi-weekly pittance. Working as an unpaid off-ice official in the ECHL for three years hauling my butt up to Reading and Atlantic City for no money and only experience. Doing pitch-by-pitch for MLB at the Vet and CBP for three years. Going back to school at Temple. Getting a weekly hockey column (which was in desperate need of an editor’s touch) at the original incarnation of what is 97.5 The Fanatic, covering high school/college hoops and Carolina League baseball for a Delaware news-radio station. I also took my first legitimate vacation as an adult to Eastern Canada, driving from Niagara Falls to Toronto and onto Montreal and back through farm country in Southern Quebec, hitting all the hockey sites along the way and talking with natives about the sport and its place in Canadian culture.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d make damn sure I took at least one course in journalism during my undergraduate and graduate studies, and took at least one chance at writing something sports-related for one of the school papers. So, all you guys and gals who did that before graduating, I salute you. You’re miles away from where I was to start.

It wasn’t until I lucked into a job at my present company in September of 2006, a wire service located in the Philly suburbs, where I really learned how to become a writer. Note, I didn’t say “journalist,” because there’s nothing in my job description which delineates actually going to games, holding a recording device, or writing features on a daily basis. Generally, I watch or “cover” anywhere from two to five games every night depending on time of year. My editors hammered at me day and night to get things squared away in modified AP style all the way down to removing the weird slanty apostrophe in quotes, and it took almost a year and a half before I was able to do it to their specifications effectively.

It was a year before I gained my first by-line, and it wasn’t from daily work. Trusted enough because of my hockey background, I was able to craft a pair of NHL team season previews in 2007, and once they hit the internet and filtered down to the hockey message boards, I came face-to-face with another hidden sign of success: ordinary, reactionary fans ripping to shreds every word I wrote.

It was a Washington Capitals preview, where I savaged the front office and hockey culture for failing the fans over the past decade. Someone on HF Boards culled it from its syndicated spot in the Orange County Register and pretty much everyone who weighed in proceeded to tear me a new one. I laughed, I cried, I was pissed off that hardly anyone came to my defense, but I knew I made it if the God’s honest truth moved some desperate keyboard cowboys to white-hot anger.

Then, there was this little nugget that came to me while sweating out another brutal early September heat wave in my stucco-walled apartment in the city almost three years ago. Intentionally fashioned as a total smear job, an indictment of one system contained within the sport I loved and followed for more than two decades, the piece was picked up on the national level and spread like wildfire.

So at the very least I’ve got Washingtonians and Western Canadians pissed off going for me, which is nice…

The fundamental problem with that is clearly, people who read your material will always comment more, and more intensely, in dispute or dislike of your writing than in praise of it. You can try to game the system, but it still comes down to success being measured at how infrequently your readers take issue with anything you produce.

Make no mistake, this is a thankless profession if you don’t want to shoot right to the top. Just because you think you’re awesome and it’s a cool thing to have that credential, know that others just don’t give a damn and think they can do better and have no problem saying so. Yet, any publicity is good publicity and as long as your name is out there, regardless of how others perceive your work, it’s step in the right direction.

You’ve gotta keep your head about you and it’s tough. Leave it to twisted people like myself to revel in some epic public blowback, but the sooner you develop a thick skin by taking chances with your writing and being true to your own voice, the better it will serve you later on.

I’m reminded of the words Kevin Bacon’s middle-aged boss at the ad company, played by actor/director Dennis Dugan, imparted to Bacon’s young character Jefferson Briggs — who wants to break free and become a legitimate novelist — in the 1988 John Hughes comedy-drama “She’s Having a Baby:”

“I measure my life in degrees of happiness…I’m supporting family in a way that makes me happy…that’s what I take. You never get what you want. The guys who jump off the Michigan Avenue bridge on their 40th birthdays are the ones who want more than they will ever get.”

From a 40-year-old to a 25-year-old that’s some pretty heavy stuff, and there’s an acknowledgement later in Dugan’s speech and in Bacon’s voice-over that the older generation passes along the story of the ones who got crushed on the way in order to temper expectations. It always sounds like there’s some jealousy and taint of failure when it’s related to the younger generation…until life gets in the way as it does and starts to weed out the ones not willing to go the distance.

This is not what I want for you guys and gals.

The unfortunate end result of constantly trying to keep my foot in the door in sports media, and having to do it without being able to successfully mine my contacts for help or without much acknowledgement of my own standing with my peers, is that I fit into no discernable category with which to find acceptance.

That is the wedge, whose edges have become very dulled as time rolls on.

Without formal journalistic training, a specific BA or MA in the discipline, and the requisite experience laboring at small papers where I’m on the beat from day one and getting that crucial on-the-job training that will further a career, I’ll always feel the heat from and will never be welcomed or respected by those like Dave Isaac, Wayne Fish, Dan Gelston and Adam Kimelman. Plus, the sum total of all my various experience beyond the bounds of the beat for all these years has made it virtually impossible to talk the game with these reporters who pretty much travel and circulate in self-contained units, and report on the same things year after year.

Being one of the Old Heads who has taken up residence down the right side of the press level with a lot of budding professionals in their early-to-mid 20′s, I’m more apt to shake my head at some of your actions and conversations and mannerisms, and wish that time and maturity will help you move on from the basics of understanding minutia of the game to the discovering the overarching beauty of the sport. That’s a hindrance to my ability to network, as is the frustration I feel at some of my older colleagues who pursue this as a side job, who have more access and followers and seem to be respected more simply because they understand, talk and write about the game as a knowledgeable fan would.

What do I take from my experiences that might tell me I’ve reached some level of “success?” Even that’s a 50-50 proposition.

I’ve been recognized, by sight and handshake and conversation multiple times by Howard Eskin. Say what you want (and I know you will), but Howard’s an institution in this city simply by haunting every locker room in existence.

The first time was in 2005, when a good friend of mine from high school was Eskin’s producer at WIP. I made a visit to their new digs at One Bala Plaza to drop off a resume tape and meet with some higher-ups, but before that, popped into the studio to pay my respects. Eskin was there and when the introduction was made, Howard cut my friend off mid-sentence and blurted out, ” Oh, I remember you! You worked the Phillies the last couple years.”

Howard used to show up around the seventh inning when I was doing MLB Advanced Media pitch-by-pitch stuff my first year (2002) and we quickly bonded over ripping on Hector Mercado’s uncanny ability to prolong games by a half hour. He didn’t have to sit way down in the right side of the press box (where all the “new media” newbies were shoved) and he certainly didn’t have to engage someone he didn’t know or recognize.

Then, prior to last year’s Game 3 against the Penguins at the WFC, I was walking up the corridor of the press box, and there’s Eskin, chatting up someone and munching on a pretzel while also taking sips of a Tim Horton’s coffee over on the counter top opposite the food and drink dispensaries. When he randomly peers over his shoulder as I’m approaching where he stood, he puts down his pretzel and coffee, stops talking to whoever it was, looks me straight in the eye and asks how I’m doing while grasping my hand with both of his. Can’t lie, I felt eight feet tall and bulletproof for the rest of the day.

I also take away that, along with Philadelphia fans, other hockey lovers, and various colleagues from different outlets, I’m followed faithfully by both Canadians and Europeans, specifically Swedes. Anyone who knows my Twitter handle sees where my childhood loyalties and memories lie, and if you follow along to this series of columns, you’ll eventually find out how those North of the Border come to know me as something more than an atypical American who loves the game.

These are the momentary, small things that keep me going when I see on a day-to-day basis that I have roughly one-third to one-tenth the followers that some of my colleagues, fans and other journalists who cover the sport on a more consistent basis — and therefore carry with it the misconception that I’m not as knowledgeable or talented or worthy of being recognized for what I’ve worked my adult life to achieve. It’s what I have to go on when I see a majority of the discussion of the sport boiled down to the most trivial things that fans will latch onto rather than learning about certain aspects that will enhance their love of the game.

In summation, you’re in a very unique position due to luck and the times. Don’t get ahead of yourselves. Keep your heads up and your eyes peeled, and when a bona-fide chance to better yourself comes along — take it — even if it means taking a “step down” from what you’ve been doing with the Flyers and NHL. Don’t become too cynical or too independent, work on your relationships and mine them for all they’re worth — but never become so much of a cipher that you’ll do anything to “succeed.”

Learn to take the small victories in stride and remember they’ll be more evident and obvious than bigger ones. Realize that the number of RTs and likes on any of your posts really isn’t a true barometer of your ability, but make sure you temper that against your capacity to produce popular work.

Don’t be afraid to expand horizons, to take and give criticism where it’s warranted, because it’s more valuable to find those who will give you an honest appraisal of your work than it is to find buddies who will slap you on the back and agree with you and say to everyone else how awesome your content is. Discuss, debate, grow stronger from doing so, and don’t minimize those with opinions different from yours.

And do the work. Always, do the work. Put in the time to make something special. When you think you’ve done it well, let that little voice inside your head throw back some doubt so you can do better.

I expect to find some of you writing your own reports back from the front lines in about 10 years and I expect they will be quite a bit less ambivalent and more positive than mine.