Monday, August 27, 2012

The Little Engine that Could

It's good to know that after 30 plus years in television news there are things that I can still learn.  Tropical Storm Isaac provided this old cynic an excellent lesson in skilled planning and preparation.  It gave me a chance to share my knowledge along with a little bit of wisdom, while getting to see a first rate managers leading an understaffed and outgunned team to a stunning ratings feat.  The can do attitude permeated the entire station operation from promotions, to production, to engineering, to the newsroom, even into sales, traffic and our general manager.

Our news director Eric Maze, made the bold decision to unleash the hounds in the face of Isaac on Sunday.  A simple two-tiered approach would put us on the air as soon as Sunday's NFL football game ended on FOX at about 7 p.m. for continuous coverage until 9 a.m. the following morning.  Our station faces severe technical limitations when compared to the other stations in the market, plus the other station's boast staffs more than double what we can put out into the field and into key positions inside the newsroom.

Isaac was a massive storm that threatened to do a lot of damage to our viewing area.  Somehow we were spared by and large, while Florida's east coast suffered the brunt of this weird tropical system. Even though Isaac turned out to be a dud, we gave our viewers excellent coverage of the events in our area as they unfolded without sensationalizing the storm.  Eric set the bar very high and the news and production team at FOX 4 worked seamlessly together to the benefit of our viewers.  They repaid us in spades by watching our coverage in large numbers into the wee morning hours.

It leaves me wondering what will happen when the next major tropical system moves our way.  It may be game on from our competitors.  Regardless, we've shown our viewers and I'm betting some of our competitor's viewers that we're capable of giving them first rate weather coverage.  It's nice to beat the two neighborhood bullies with one armed tied behind your back.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Running with Isaac

What an amazing week of weather in Southwest Florida.  Three days ago we were staring down the barrel of Tropical Storm Isaac.  Now the storm appears headed to some unfortunate section of the Gulf Coast.  As I write we're enjoying breezy conditions and light rain.  It's supposed to get worse as the day wears on but I doubt we're going to get much of anything.

I always enjoy tropical storms as it brings relief to the usually dead calm and massive humidity that grips Southwest Florida in the summer.  But Wednesday and Thursday night served up two of the best evenings in terms of running weather I can ever remember at this time of the year.  It felt more like mid-spring with just a hint of humidity and a nice, fresh breeze, that made running a joy.  I actually felt a lightness in my legs for the first time since my efforts to begin training since my injury problems started back in May.

By Friday the humidity began to return with a vengeance and Saturday's run was downright miserable as I plodded out 6 miles in miserable conditions.  But Sunday dawned with Isaac providing a nice breath to my surroundings as I headed out the door for a 40 minute run.  Somehow I managed to avoid the rain but it was tropical storm running at its best.  The breezy conditions kept me on my toes as I watched up for falling palm frowns and other debris.  I actually trotted along at sub-10 minute pace.  It seems my legs and stamina are beginning to return.

I spent my post run time putting away things that could fly away in the wind and settled down to wait.  I've got to head into work at 2 a.m. for a 12 hour shift.  I suspect I'm going to be bored out of my skull and I'm hoping my boss will call off the dogs in the next 4 hours or so.  This is going to be a non-event.  At worst we'll see some coastal flooding and a few power outages.  Heck, I haven't even dropped my hurricane shutters!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

One Small Step

July 20, 1969 is one of those days burned into my memory just like the assassination of John F. Kennedy and The Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.  On that date, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.  Watching CBS anchor Walter Cronkite do the play-by-play of the landing beat anything today's reality TV has to offer.  Then there was the agonizing wait for NASA to give the green light to Neil Armstrong to make his historic trek down the ladder of the Lunar Module and take man's first steps on the moon.

That grainy moment captured from the surface of the moon summed up everything that made the United States of America great in the 20th century.  After watching the historic step I went outside and joined my neighbor Greg Morgenson, who had set up a telescope to look up at the bright full moon that shown over Abilene, Kansas.  Greg and I pondered what Armstrong and Aldrin must be experiencing so very, very far away.

Astronauts were like sports heroes.  John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schara, etc; we're right up there with Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle.  In fact astronauts were beyond big in the 1960's.  NASA's publicity machine did a great job of keeping these courageous men in the public consciousness. 

Armstrong seemed dull compared to many of the stable of astronauts that worked for NASA.  To me it seems the fact that he was unremarkable made him the perfect choice to be the first man on the moon.  He never really cashed in on that fact.  John Glenn embraced the spotlight that being an astronaut gave him and turned it into a great political career.  Armstrong went along quietly, contributing to science and in the board rooms of some major American corporations.

In fact, that's how I got to meet him.  I was working in Phoenix when our corporate bosses came to see the facility.  Neil Armstrong sat on the board of Taft Broadcasting.  In a little used studio the staff gathered for a meet and greet with the corporate suits.  I only went so I could see Neil Armstrong.  Meeting great men and women always leaves me in awe.  But I never felt so nervous or shy as when I got to meet Neil Armstrong.  I knew I was in the presence of one of the most extraordinary moments of man's history.  It is a moment I will never forget.

Neil Armstrong died at age 82 this Saturday.  Of America's 12 moon-walkers... only 8 remain.  It's sad to think that we may not reach the moon or another planet before the last of these great men pass.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Little High School Madness

It was back to the future.  I loaded my laptop into my computer bag with pens, a notebook and a stat sheet for a night of high school football in Naples.  I was tasked with covering an exhibition game between Hialeah and Naples High School, a perennial powerhouse in Southwest Florida.  I was working as a hired gun for the Fort Myers News-Press, a thankless job that I last did in 2009.

For very little pay I get to watch what usually turns out to be some very bad high school football.  Fortunately, Naples has a very good team and Hialeah, though poorly coached, had a handful of Division I talent.  I was rusty from the get go.  The high school game moves fast and you have to keep careful track of where the ball is, who carries or catches it, or who makes the big tackle, fumble recovery or interception and again, the exact yard line.  There's no instant replay to act as a back up.  You've got to pay attention.

High school football has really changed in one way since I attended my first game way back in 1965.  You see a lot more spread offenses.  But by and large at the high school level, running the ball is the name of the game.  It's kind of refreshing from the pass happy college game and NFL.  The other thing is you can clearly spot the truly talented player at this level.  They stick out like a sore thumb. 

Naples has two or three really, really good players.  They manhandled Hialeah, which had many more talented players.  But Naples coach Bill Kramer runs a very tight ship.  His teams are methodical.  The offense executes its power veer with precision and his defense always swarms the field.

I've got another dozen or so Friday nights devoted to covering the area preps.  No doubt the local rag will send me to some destitute spot in the middle of south Florida.  But it's extra money in my bank account that counts.  Maybe I'll get to see a future star that will get a chance to show his skills on Sunday.  But I'll be satisfied if I get to see a few more teams like Naples this season.  Great coaching beats talent almost every time at the high school level.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Flood of Music

The next two months promise a flood of music that will overwhelm my wallet.  Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Mark Knopfler and the Grateful Dead are serving up releases over the next two months.  Two are highly anticipated offerings.  Bob Dylan is out with his 35th studio album, "Temptest."  It marks his first serving of new music in three years.  More importantly Neil Young has joined forces with Crazy Horse to offer up a new album.

What you say?  Yes Neil and the Horse just released a disc called "Americana," a ration of old folk standards and classics.  But Neil also recorded a whole batch of new material scheduled to come out in October called "Psychedelic Pill."  Neil Young and Crazy Horse haven't released an album of new material since "Greendale" in 2003.

To make matters worse Mark Knopfler will tour his new album "Privateer" alongside Bob Dylan this fall.  I am beside myself because Mark and Bob aren't coming anywhere near the east coast.  I've never seen Knopfler and have really grown to love his music over the last decade, his incredible debut self-titled album with his then band Dire Straits. "Sultans of Swing" was one of the best rock songs of the late 1970's.

And then there is the good ol' Grateful Dead.  They are serving up a massive box set of several shows from 1990.  It is my favorite period of the band's history.  Brent Mydland was still alive and playing great keyboards and Jerry Garcia was relatively healthy.  The limited edition set will cost close to $200 and I don't think I can wait until my birthday or Christmas.

It should be enough music to keep my tied over through the holidays, that's for sure.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Slice of the Moon and Lighting too!

Tonight I rolled out of my home into the dusk soaked humidity that only Southwest Florida can produce in August.  As I slowly trudged out of my neighborhood to the asphalt trail I could look to the west at a sliver of the moon, much like the Dreamworks logo minus the little boy holding his fishing pole.  To the northwest miles away a massive thunderhead produced the occasional spectacular flashes of lightning to help take my mind off of my misery.
 As difficult as it is to believe, my belly is a lot larger than as pictured from a February road race where I ran pretty well.  But that was a little more than ten pounds ago.  Three months worth of injuries has taken its toll.  What I find difficult to believe is my first few runs over the last two weeks have been at such a slow pace I am left wondering where the heck did any semblance of fitness.

I've had multiple surgeries and worse injury bouts than this last one but within a week I was able to roll along at a relatively decent pace.  Right now a 9:30 mile feels lightning fast.  I can slog along with no problem, probably even as far as ten miles if I wanted to risk it.  But the thought of trying to pick up the pace to something that resembles real running is out of the question right now.  My guess is it's going to take at least six weeks to get my legs back.

Fortunately for me there are no major road races that I want to run until November and even then I'm not sure I want to take on a 5K.  This is going to be an awfully long trek into fall and an even longer one into winter.  I think I'm going to have to take some serious long run medicine with the wonderful women I met last spring in the relay across Florida. They meet every Saturday morning around 5:30 a.m. to get in 10 miles or so.  They trek along at a pace that I can barely handle right now.  It will be a good dose of humility, reality and conditioning that should go a long way in helping me shed the extra 15 pounds or so I'm carrying. 

So watch out Maria, watch out Jamie, watch out Dana and Andrea.  The old fat man is back in business and is in need of some tender loving LSD with his favorite group of crusading distance gals.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Another Teammate Gone

Once upon a time baseball ranked at the top of my list of sports love affairs.  It was the sport I first embraced when the light bulb went off in my head that men like Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle existed.  About that time my mother got me a subscription to Sports Illustrated and I was hooked.

I loved the game's history.  I studied it with a passion, paging through the Baseball Encyclopedia, devouring the statistics, debating the merits of different players with my friends.  Tucked away in the list of great players and teams were the Boston Red Sox of the late 1940's.  You look at that lineup and wonder how the hell is it that they didn't make more trips to the World Series.  Oh yeah, the New York Yankees were a major roadblock, but those Red Sox teams were loaded.

David Halberstam chronicled the four core teammates of those great teams in a 2003 book called, "The Teammates:  A Portrait of Friendship."  The story revolved one of baseball's greatest hitters Ted Williams and his relationship with three other teammates, Bobby Doerr, Dom Dimaggio, and Johnny Pesky.  It is a wonderful read, peeling away Williams crusty exterior by detailing the enduring friendships he had formed with these three wonderful ballplayers.

Johnny Pesky died today at 92.  He was a slick fielding shortstop who hit for average but not much power.  He hit only 17 home-runs in his war shortened career but has the honor of having the right field foul pole in Boston's historic Fenway Park named after him.  Of the four teammate only Doerr remains, at age 94.  Williams died a decade ago, Dimaggio in 2009. 

When I see news that a great ballplayer like Pesky die I feel a twinge of in my heart.  My mind races to some of the all time greats still walking this earth, men like Stan Musial and Yogi Berra.  They ruled the sports world when baseball was still America's past time.  The pace of life was a little slower.  There was no Internet, no sabermetrics to weigh every stat each player produced, free agency was years away.  Heck, America's interstates weren't even complete.

They were part of America's greatest generation.  Go read Halberstam's book then read anything by Roger Angell about baseball.  Great books about baseball remind me why I once loved the game so much.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Let the Games End

I'm suffering from Olympic fatigue.  Never have I been so happy to see the Olympics come to an end.  That's saying a lot considering my love of track and field.  The performances at Olympic Stadium in London did not disappoint.

What did disappoint was NBC's presentation of the Games.  The horrific web feed was a buffer mess chalk full of endless commercials which ruined the continuity of the broadcast.  The prime time shows aimed at the lowest common denominator, with lousy commentary and even worse analysis.  The only interesting bits came from Tom Brokaw and Mary Carillo with their stories of British history and tradition.

The BBC delivered in spades.  The few chances that I got to watch through a web stream showed what Olympic coverage can truly deliver.  The race calls were thrilling, the analysis insightful and even though the BBC focused on their athletes, they gave the proper amount of coverage and respect due to the other athletes competing for other countries.  It wasn't personality or star driven like NBC.

NBC decided before the meet started who the stars are and that bit them in the ass more times than I care to count.  Lolo Jones stands out the most.  The amount of coverage given to her compared to Dawn Wells, who owns both an Olympic Gold and Silver medal was about 10 to 1.  Galen Rupp and Leo Manzano deliver historic performances in the 10000 and 1500 and it merits barely a blip in the prime time coverage.  Instead with are deluged with scantily clad bikini beach volleyball players who couldn't cut it in indoor volleyball and BMX bike racers.  But enough of my rant.
The track and field portion of these games were amazing. Meb Keflezighi's amazing run from further back than 15th place to finish 4th in the marathon is nothing short of amazing.  Even though he didn't medal it ranks right up there with the Silver medals snagged by Rupp and Manzano showing the terrific comeback in American distance running.

The biggest hero of the American effort to me is relays coach Jon Drummond.  The former sprint great got the most out of four relay squads.  The women delivered 2 Gold medals and a World Record in the 4 X 100.  Despite two Silver medals from the men's squad both teams did great considering the injuries and the dominating presence of one Usain Bolt.  Kudos to Drummond for getting such great performances out of all four relay teams.  America's track and field team brought back 29 medals and with a bit of look could have won 3 or 4 more. 

The most magnificent run came from Kenya's David Rudisha.  His 800 meter world record was a stunning one man show that clearly stamps him as the greatest at two laps in history.  I wouldn't be surprised to see him return in 2016 and claim Gold in Rio.

Finally, there's Bolt.  He pronounced himself a legend while taking a well-deserved shot at America's greatest track and field Olympian, Carl Lewis.  Bolt's is much like Muhammed Ali, full of bravado.  I think his words won't play well in the United States.  Let the journalist and fans pronounce you a legend.  Let your running speak for itself.

In the end none of us should be fooled by what we see on the track.  Drugs remains a serious problem in the sport.  The IOC and IAAF don't want to do anything to inflict further damage on a sport that sees its fan base eroding.  I'm not saying Bolt is a doper, I simply don't know.  But I think you could easily spot a lot of chemically enhanced performances in London.  The real winners are the chemists who keep creating concoctions that stay just one step ahead of the testers.  It leaves me in doubt and feeling empty about a sport that I truly love. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Leo Roars

12 men toed the line tonight for my favorite Olympic event.  The men's 1500 meter run.  The experts were pondering whether American Matt Centrowitz could duplicate his shocking accomplishment from last year's World Championships by taking a Bronze medal.  Another American stood beside him at the start, a tiny figure born in Mexico, but raised in Texas, Leo Manzano.

Leo Manzano first popped onto my radar nearly a decade ago when he appeared out of nowhere at the Kansas Relays to set a meet record in the boy's 800 meter run.  I scratched my head and wondered where the heck this kid from Marble Falls High School came from?  Rarely did runners travel all the way from Texas to run the Relays plus I prided myself in knowing the top high school kids in track and field. Manzano wasn't on my radar at all.

He went on to an outstanding career at the University of Texas where he built upon an outstanding high school career.  Leo won 4 NCAA titles and showed an uncanny ability at the college level to run well off of any pace.  Yet his times in college, while good, didn't indicate greatness.

Manzano was an accomplished runner no doubt but hardly ballyhooed like my running hero Jim Ryun.  The Kansas great set world records and went into the Mexico City Olympics as a Gold medal contender.  Were it not for the altitude of Mexico City and the team tactics of the Kenyans Ryun might have been able to beat the great Kip Keino.

I remember the intense disappointment sitting in front of our black and white RCA TV in Abilene, Kansas watching Ryun helplessly try to close the massive gap Keino had opened up going into the last lap.  Keino ran a stunning time, 3:34.91, perhaps the greatest 1500 ever, considering the track sat at 7,350 feet.  It was pure agony 44 years ago for this 12-year-old.  I can only imagine the heartbreak for Ryun.

Now in London, Leo Manzano was toeing the line, not even picked by the experts to make the finals.  The Czarina loves Manzano.  He's only 5' 5" which means most other middle distance runners tower over him.  She loves the scrappy determination he shows when running the last 150 meters of a mile or 1500.  But all too often in big events, Manzano seemed to lack the tactics and the explosive speed needed in a championship final.

But not in 2012, this Texan was destined to stand tall.  No, Leo didn't win.  Leo came away with a Silver medal just like my hero Jim Ryun.  I watched with unbridled joy the BBC web feed of the 1500 finals this afternoon.  At first I thought it was Centrowitz who was going to burst down the final stretch but Manzano had run a perfect race positioning himself to slingshot down the track over the final 100 meters.

The winner, Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria, used all sorts of deception to work his way into the finals, undoubtedly faking an injury to get out of the 800 to save himself for the 1500..  His speed from 1000 meters to 1400 was unbelievable and he gave him a gap big enough for Gold.

And now I sit in front of the television with the Czarina waiting for NBC to show the 1500 finals some seven hours after it happened.  The Czarina has no idea what happens.  I can't wait to see her joy when her favorite miler grabs Olympic glory and America's first Olympic medal at 1500 meters in 44 years.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Golden Hour

A week into the Olympic Games where Michael Phelps rose like a phoenix and Gabby Douglas became America's latest gymnastics sweetheart.  But nothing could stir the sporting soul like the period between 3:45 p.m. EST and 4:45 p.m. EST but you wouldn't know it watching NBC's coverage.  The Brits enjoyed a golden hour of athletics.  First Jessica Ennis overcame her many critics to capture gold in the Heptathlon.  Shortly after her victory Greg Rutherford seal his surprising gold medal in the Long Jump.  As that event wrapped up more than 20 men circled the track running 10000 meters.  You had to watch it all unfold on the Internet to watch history unfold in real time.

Running for Great Britain was Somali transplant Mo Farah.  It was a bruising competition.  The Eritrean runners continually pushed and shoved Farah during the first half of the race, trying to throw him off his game.  Farah also had to deal with the Kenyans and Ethiopians who were ready to steal his gold.

The real racing didn't begin until 5 laps remained in the competition.  3 Ethiopians, 3 Eritreans, 2 Kenyans, Farah and his American training partner Galen Rupp appeared poised to battle it out over the last 2000 meters.  It was a chess match, no one wanting to push the tempo too hard.  The Ethiopians trying to keep it under control for Kenenisa Bekele, who was seeking yet another Olympic title.  The Kenyans looking lost and confused over whether to push the tempo or wait and kick.  Rupp and Farah simply ran with confidence biding their time.
It came with 500 meters to go.  Farah seized the lead and dared the field to catch him.  Rupp, bravely held on as the race for the podium fell to just 6 runners down the backstretch.  Farah never faltered, running away from the field coming off the final turn while Rupp gathered himself and sprinted around three other runners into 2nd.  It was amazing stretch run, the British crowd roaring for Farah and Rupp sprinting after his training mate in wide eyed surprise as he realized they would go 1-2.

As much as this first ever gold at 10000 meant for Great Britain, Galen Rupp's silver means just as much for U.S.A. distance running.  It marked the first American medal at 10000 since Billy Mill's spectacular sprint to gold in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.  Rupp is standing on the precipice of becoming the greatest distance runner in American history.

Now both men will figure in the hunt for medals at 5000 meters next week.  Alberto Salazar has proven himself as one of the great distance coaches of his generation, having guided both Farah, Rupp and Dathan Ritzenheim who finished a respectable 13th in this incredible race.  As great as Salazar was as a runner, he's now proven himself an even greater coach.

Finally, this medal marks redemption for Rupp.  He has been the whipping boy for almost a decade for nasty critics who grace the message boards of websites like Let'sRun.  They've questioned his toughness and his finishing speed.  They hate his association with Salazar and the advantages that training at the NIKE facilities give him with its state of the art technology.  Most of all I think they were envious of his success.  Galen Rupp has seen success at every level and whether they know it or not, an Olympic silver medal is a huge success.  Just ask Jim Ryun.

Editor's note:  Just wanted to add that it's a shame that American Matt Tegenkamp did not compete better in the 10000.  Matt, who hails from Lee's Summit, Missouri, has had an incredible career and still holds the American Record for 2 miles.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Delta Force, to the Power of One

Tomorrow afternoon a 40 something junior college coach will sit down in front of a computer or a television set to watch one of his progeny will take to the track in London in a quest for Olympic glory.  Mike Bloemker is a very successful track and cross country coach.  He made his bones first as a private coach working out of the now Health Plus club in a Kansas City suburb.

Bloemker was hated by a handful of spiteful high school coaches.  He took several high school boys and girls, trained them properly, turning many into state champions.  One of his boys, Dwight Davis, went on to break 4 minutes in the mile in college.  During one period in the late 90's he had half a dozen girls running at Division 1 schools, one a two-time Footlocker finalist, Amanda Pape.

The hatred eventually put Mike in a bind.  It was impacting his recruiting at Johnson County Community College.  He hated the back biting lies and jealousy that his success brought.  By 2001 he washed his hands of private coaching and slowly but surely the hate and resentment among the high school coaches in the Kansas City area faded away.

The best group of his long, line of successful distances runners came out of a group which dubbed itself, Delta Force.  Amy Gouchner, Elle Pishney and Amy Hastings were all outstanding high school runners.  All ended up at D1 schools, Gouchner first running for Mike at JCCC, then Southern Utah.  Pishney went to Duke.  Hastings was an All-American at Arizona State.  Now she's an Olympian.

I went a long for a long run or two with this trio in the late 90's.  They loved running together.  You could see the bond gained from those16 mile runs they rolled through every Sunday morning.  But I can honestly say that I would never expect that any of these three would become world class distance runners.  Yet, Hastings did.

Amy was in no way the best runner Mike ever coached.  Pape was the most accomplished at the high school level with a national junior title at 5000 meters.  Amanda was good in college (Georgetown), but lacked Hastings drive.  Amy thrived at Arizona State and by her junior year she started running quality times and earned multiple All-American honors.  Then last year she ran a stunning 2:27 debut marathon in Los Angeles opening a lot of eyes.

A heart breaking 4th place finish at the Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston left her with only one option.  Amy had to qualify for the Olympics in the 10000.  She did it shocking everyone by out sprinting the field for an unbelievable win.

Tomorrow Amy will toe the line against the world's best.  That means facing the Kenyans, Ethiopians, Russians, Chinese and Brits in hopes of Olympic glory.  It would be a miracle on the scale of Billy Mills epic win in Tokyo for Hastings to even make the medals.  A top 10 finish would be a stellar achievement.

Tomorrow when I sit down at 4:25 p.m. to watch this race I will think of Mike and all the garbage he swallowed to help get Hastings to where she is today.  He played an important role in developing a young, talented runner, into a world class competitor.  I know he's proud.  He should be proud.

As for Amy, her home state of Kansas and her hometown of Leavenworth will be rooting for her.  The Czarina and I will be rooting for her.  I hope she runs the time of her life and shocks the world.