Rossi: It’s a Bird, it’s a Bat, it’s Our man

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(Photo: Reuters) It's Showtime!

(Photo: Reuters)
It’s Showtime!

He threw high and tight.

And then Batman threw out the first pitch.

It was my first (and only) home opener as the Pirates beat reporter for the Tribune-Review, and it made for the most awe-inspiring moment of a fairly unforgettable 2006. After all, that was the year during which I twice turned tongue tied while meeting Mick Jagger, shared a bit too much information with Alyssa Milano and tried to jump onto a moving SUV transporting Mario Lemieux – and each of those occurrences happened while I was working. But nothing topped the Pirates’ home opener at PNC Park, and my rock god, teenage fantasy and childhood hockey hero ended up having nothing on Michael Keaton.

They still don’t, especially not after Keaton’s Golden Globes moment on Sunday night.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

It was a seemingly perfect pairing.

The Pirates had invited Keaton to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The franchise was starting a new era with a new manager, but it lacked buzz compared to Pittsburgh’s other pro teams. Ben Roethlisberger had just led the Steelers to their long-awaited “one for the thumb.” Sidney Crosby was several months into turning citizens back onto the Penguins. The Pirates had been losers since 1993, and their biggest draw (Jason Bay) was likeable, but hardly a marquee attraction.

Neither was Keaton at that point. At least, he certainly was not on Hollywood’s A List. He had been Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice and Batman, but he upon arriving at the ballpark on that sunny day, Keaton was mostly talked about as a Pittsburgh who had made it big.

He was a Pittsburgher, though. And he made that clear, much to the horror of many within the Pirates organization.

Sitting at a table in a room reserved for interviews, Keaton happily took questions from members of the local media. Near the back rows sat Pirates employees. Their smiles were wide and unmistakable at the beginning. I remember looking at Joe Rutter, from whom I had inherited the beat, and rolling my eyes. A Keaton fan, because I’m a Pittsburgher and because I’m a proper thinking American, I was pleased to take in the moment – but it surely felt like a waste of my time on a busy day.

Then, in response to a question that I honestly cannot remember, Keaton pretty much ended what would become a gruesome Pirates season.

“I fear they will take advantage of the good will of the people who continue to show up,” Keaton said of Pirates ownership. “For my money, that’s disrespectful. At some point, you have to write the check.”

(Photo: Bendsource.com, subject to copyright) Say his name three times. Especially if you're in a jam.

(Photo: Bendsource.com, subject to copyright)
Say his name three times. Especially if you’re in a jam.

Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!

Nope, that was still Keaton sitting at that table.

Joe could not keep from offering a throat-clearing “Wow.” I buried my face in my right hand to hide my laughter. Joe Starkey, then a full-time Trib columnist, alerted both of us to the back rows, where Pirates employees’ smiles had turned to sneers. The room actually felt cooler than it had when the news conference started.

♦ ♦ ♦

There were too many.

However, of the many maddening moments from the Pirates’ 20 consecutive losing seasons, Keaton – inarguably their most famous fan – laying waste to their way of doing business before throwing out the first pitch at the home opener ranks as the most unforgettable. And I think I know why.

He was speaking for Pittsburghers. That’s what it felt like.

Keaton seemed sick of the losing, sick of the small-market excuses, sick of everything. He was back where he belonged, back home, and it was as though he simply could not let down fans that felt their voices were never heard by ownership. He was the fan with the loudest voice, and he used it to drop a cannon ball on the captain’s quarters of the Good Ship Jolly Roger that had docked on the banks of the Allegheny River.

That season (and six more) would pass before the Pirates became winners again. When they did, Keaton made sure everybody knew just how big of a deal his Pirates were to Pittsburghers around the world.

(Photo: AP) You wanna get nuts? Let's get nuts!

(Photo: AP)
You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!

On Sunday night, an emotional Keaton was honored at the Golden Globe Awards for his virtuoso performance in “Birdman.” It is the role of a lifetime for the first silver screen Batman, and I hope it delivers him more awards, including an Oscar.

And, yes, I’m rooting for Keaton to clean up during the Hollywood awards season because he is a Pittsburgh, and right now he is a Pittsburgher who is making it big again.

The Pirates should bring him back for the first pitch to their upcoming home opener. He might be their best fan because of what he said seven years ago. Plus, coming off two consecutive postseason appearances and an offseason that featured spending by ownership, the Pirates are undeniably back.

Just like Michael John Douglas from Forest Grove.

Or Batman.

Because, with all due respect to Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, Ben Affleck (and A.J. Burnett), Michael Keaton is Batman.

(Photo: Moviepilot.com, subject to copyright) Everybody else is just wearing his cowl.

(Photo: Moviepilot.com, subject to copyright)
Everybody else is just wearing his cowl.

 

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Rossi: Steelers’ loss doesn’t mean Pittsburgh isn’t a winner

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(Photo: Christopher Horner, Trib Total Media) Saturday night wasn't all right for a Steelers' win, but it was another big show for our popular city.

(Photo: Christopher Horner, Trib Total Media)
Saturday night wasn’t all right for a Steelers’ win, but it was another big show for our popular city.

Evening playoff games are the dread of all newspaper reporters, especially columnists.

It’s not that we have to file a story as soon as the game ends. It’s that we often try to file before the game ends. This helps our night desk get out the print product. This helps the readers  in some parts of Western Pennsylvania get a print product.

My job on Saturday was to write a lot. And, candidly, I gave up on writing a lot well. Deadline writing requires the setting aside of ego, if not the complete ignoring of it. You pick an angle and hope it goes your way. And when it doesn’t, such as the Steelers pulling close at one point in the fourth quarter of what was a blowout loss to the Ravens, you start sweating.

This is the column I ended up writing. I filed it with about three minutes remaining in the AFC wild card game. Before filing it, I had written about 350 words – roughly half of a column – about a Steelers’ victory. I had written those words in about 10 minutes. They weren’t very good. I’m quite glad nobody had to read them.

I also wrote a news story based off interviews conducted in the Steelers’ dressing room. Didn’t have to do that, but offered because I didn’t feel my column required quotes, and because I felt our readers deserved to hear from Steelers greats who might not return next season. This story appeared only our web site. Free candy, or at least my version of it.

Some Trib readers might have found a completely different column in their print version. It was one I wrote before the game. We call it an “early column” here in Newspaper Land. It has nothing to do with the game because, obviously, it was filed before the game. Not knowing if the Steelers would win or lose, I agonized over a topic that could hold up. The topic I chose blended a personal experience with an interview I did with the city’s mayor, a diehard sports fan whose beloved Pittsburgh has had quite a star turn early in his tenure.

No reporter wants his work to go to waste. More than that, though, I’m including that “early column” in this blog because, as a Pittsburgher, I am aware how lousy the days after a season-ending loss by one of the local teams can be – and I, again as a Pittsburgher, wanted my readers to have something that might bring a bit of cheer.

Here it is:

Used to be that we needed nights like Saturday.

They would serve as a seeming affirmation of something that we loved about ourselves as Pittsburghers. And even if we’re not within city limits, we’re all Pittsburghers around here when the local teams bring the big games to our North Shore and Uptown. We’re all impacted, whether we like it or not.

I’m the guy who goes to Smokin’ Joe’s Saloon on the South Side and rolls his eyes when somebody starts talking about Pittsburgh being a great sports town. Maybe that’s true, but maybe it’s just as well time to eliminate the words “sports” from that conversation.

Yeah, try making that argument during the week leading up to a Steelers-Ravens playoff game.

The brilliant revival of our East End still will be around to enjoy Sunday. The Steelers, I was reminded, might be done playing Saturday night. So why wouldn’t I just try to enjoy something that hasn’t happened in a while.

(Photo: Guy Wathen, Trib Total Media) Mayor Bill Peduto oversees a city that's finally matching the success of its pro teams.

(Photo: Guy Wathen, Trib Total Media)
Mayor Bill Peduto oversees a city that’s finally matching the success of its pro teams.

Good point. In fact, it made me think about what Saturday night was for our city: history.

Heinz Field was the third Pittsburgh facility that played host to a professional playoff game in a span of nine months. That had never happened.

The last time each of Pittsburgh’s three pro clubs brought their leagues’ playoffs here was January-October 1992. Losses by the Steelers (to Buffalo) and Pirates (to Atlanta) were sandwiched by a Stanley Cup defense by the Penguins.

That was a really cool year to be a Pittsburgher.

But nobody really talks about 1992. Maybe because the places where those games were played, Three Rivers Stadium and Civic Arena, are long gone. Probably, though, we have wiped 1992 from our memories because it still wasn’t a great time for a lot of us.

Population was in decline. The jobs that had emerged didn’t look like the ones that had been lost. A strike halted daily production of the city’s two major newspapers, leading to the introduction of a Pittsburgh edition of the Tribune-Review.

There was some stuff going on, to say the least. We looked to our teams to distract us from a lot of it.

Even that came with a price to pay: a psychological one.

Nobody really heard the term “small market” before the early 1990s, but by 1992 it was burned into the brains of Pittsburghers. The Pirates were losing their best players because of this small market we called home. Could the Penguins keep theirs? Would the Steelers be able to give it a go in NFL free agency?

Nobody knew.

In 1992, a young man named Bill Peduto left his beloved region to work in the nation’s capital. A sports nut with a hockey leaning, Peduto felt an odd mix of euphoria and disappointment a year before while watching from Washington while the Penguins lifted the Stanley Cup in May 1991.

“I decided I was coming back home,” Peduto said. “They weren’t going to win it again without me back in Pittsburgh.”

The Penguins’ Cup win in 1992 marked the last championship for one of Pittsburgh’s teams until the Steelers’ long-awaited fifth Super Bowl victory during the 2005 season. Saturday night marked the 61st NHL, NFL or MLB playoff game in Pittsburgh since “One for the Thumb.”

Peduto is now Pittsburgh’s mayor. He didn’t even know about the Penguins’ latest trade until after our conversation Friday, and he’s a season-ticket holder. He attended two Steelers and two Pirates games in 2014. He tries to stay up to date on the local teams by checking Twitter on his cell phone. He tries.

He was 11 in 1975. He remembers listening on the radio as the Penguins blew a 3-0 series lead to the New York Islanders. He recalls watching the start of the Steelers dynasty. He had seen the Pirates win the 1971 World Series and was sure he’d see them do it again soon.

“It seemed like the entire city was on top of the world,” Peduto said.

It wasn’t. And it wasn’t in the 1990s, either.

Pittsburgh has been the home to some great teams but never when Pittsburgh was also doing great.

“You’d be hard pressed to look back at the 1970s or the early 1990s and say those weren’t high points in some way,” Peduto said. “Now we’re having another one. What’s interesting is that all three of those periods have come when the city was at vastly different stages.”

On the last day of 2014, the city was given another of many recent endorsements. Conde Nast ranked Pittsburgh third among worldwide cities to visit in 2015. So this city of ours has been deemed hot, livable, worthy of tourism dollars and great for breakfast.

“We’re in a different place now,” Peduto said.

This isn’t just “Steelers Country.” Pittsburgh is having itself a moment and not just because the teams are winning.

But there’s that, too.

Give all of the Trib’s Steelers coverage a read, please.

Be EXCELLENT to each other (and Happy New Year),

Rossi

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Rossi: Seam seems ugly for Steelers

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(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media) Guys, I'm open. Really. All day.

(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media)
Guys, I’m open. Really. All day.

Go deep, and go often.

That would be my advice for how the Atlanta Falcons should attack the Steelers. Though improving in some areas, pass coverage – especially on deep seam routes – is not a strength for this particular defense.

I discussed this and more with Ralph Paulk and Ken Laird on TribLive Radio’s “Steelers Roundtable.” Listen if you’d like:

 

Also, I speak for everybody in Trib Total Media in offering thoughts and prayers to Mark Kaboly, whose father died Tuesday. I will never forget what I witnessed from Mark on Sunday afternoon in Cincinnati. He learned of his dad’s worsening condition after the Steelers-Bengals game. Still, he insisted on completing his immediate duties before hitting the road to spend precious final hours with his dad. Mark fought back tears in that Cincinnati press box while trying to compose a game story, notes, etc. I marveled at his strength. I also wondered how he was able to concentrate. Upon reading this obituary, I now understand. Mark did what his dad would have wanted: finished his shift.

Our love to Mark and the Kaboly family.

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

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Rossi: How culture influences reporting

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(Photo credit: Chaz Palla, Trib Total Media) Evgeni Malkin knows us a lot better than we know him.

(Photo credit: Chaz Palla, Trib Total Media)
Evgeni Malkin knows us a lot better than we know him.

Writing about Evgeni Malkin is maybe what I do best.

Certainly it is what I enjoy most. Perhaps that is mostly because I always start thinking about something that seems bigger after writing about Malkin. That was the case after this column, and it sparked a conversation I had on Wednesday afternoon.

The latest podcast version of “Rossi Radio” is available for your listening pleasure. I was joined by Ken Laird, John Steigerwald and Josh Taylor, and we had a very interesting (and challenging) discussion about how cultural differences impact the way we have reported on athletes. Also, we disused what NHL hockey might look like within the next decade.

Have a go at what we said:

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

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Rossi: You had me at poutine

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(Photo: Christopher Horner/Trib Total Media) Russell Martin has another postseason drought to end in Toronto.

(Photo: Christopher Horner/Trib Total Media)
Russell Martin has another postseason drought to end in Toronto.

Russell Martin had a Sidney Crosby jersey hanging near his locker.

I knew that was my in. On my first day, into my first hours actually, as the Trib’s newest sports columnist, seeing that familiar jersey in a once familiar setting was of great relief to somebody who had gone a while since feeling unsettled in a professional locker room… or clubhouse, as I quickly remembered the place to be called on that warm Monday afternoon this past July.

Martin was the Pirates’ catcher then. He is not now. A friend from my hockey scribe world texted me Monday with word that the Blue Jays has just overpaid for Martin. His opinion. Mine too, actually. Still, my immediate response to this friend was, “Nice he comes ‘home’ tho” – and I sincerely hope it is nice for Martin, a Canadian, to likely finish his baseball playing days with the only club in his home and native land. Homecomings can go terribly or, worse, without incident, so this might not be the easiest of situations for Martin. Of course, he joined a Pirates franchise that had not won for 20 seasons, and helped frame (literally) the narrative of their rise to postseason participant. I wouldn’t put anything past Martin, even ending a postseason doubt in Toronto that is at 21 seasons.

I claim no great relationship with Martin. He played baseball in Pittsburgh for two seasons. I was around the Pirates for about two months. In fact, our first encounter was when he visited the Penguins’ dressing room in April 2013. What struck me then was how he carried himself around hockey players. He was completely comfortable in that setting, and when I asked a player about meeting Martin, that player’s response was to call Martin “a pro.”

Martin heard this story from me on my first day as columnist. I was nervous, not because of Martin, but rather because it had been a long time since I went into a dressing room (clubhouse… ugh!) with no idea about to whom I should speak, about what I should ask. I hadn’t awoken as a columnist but rather a hockey scribe beginning Week 3 of recovery from hernia surgery. Life happens fast. Mine changed that way. I was still very much a hockey scribbler as I walked back into the home clubhouse at PNC Park, where I had spent many days during summer 2006. I needed a column idea. I needed a prayer. I noticed that hockey jersey in the stall occupied by Martin, decided to own my past, and approached him with a terrible line even for somebody who is known to have authored some terrible line.

(Photo: Christopher Horner/Trib Total Media) Russell Martin said goodbye on Monday, but Pittsburghers had their say after his last at-bat in the NL wild card game.

(Photo: Christopher Horner/Trib Total Media)
Russell Martin said goodbye on Monday, but Pittsburghers had their say after his last at-bat in the NL wild card game.

Hi, Russell. So, I’m hoping you can help me out. I just got a new job, but I covered hockey for a long time, and figured you’d maybe have some sympathy being that you’re from Canada. 

He looked quizzically upon me, as though to say without saying, You know I play baseball, right?

I smiled, took a breath, concocted a question about ace pitchers, took down his answer and then brought up Crosby. When that topic went nowhere, I brought up poutine, opined that Montreal was the best place to eat it, and waited for Martin’s response.

“Well, Montreal is a great city for food,” Martin said. “Where else have you tried poutine?”

For the next three minutes, I was neither a former hockey scribbler nor a would-be columnist. I was just a guy talking to another guy about some shared experiences in Canada. After that conversation, I thanked Martin for his time and somehow felt like everything about this new job would be all right.

So, I’ll always remember Martin, and not just because he helped frame my first column, but because he was the perfect player for me to speak with on probably the most unsettled day of my professional life.

I’ll also always remember his last at-bat with the Pirates. That standing ovation he received from Pittsburghers as he walked off the field at PNC Park was an all-in Thank You from a city whose citizens are unapologetically parochial. Somehow, though, my guess is Pittsburghers are fine with Martin going home.

Most of us would if we weren’t already there.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

 

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Rossi: Building in a new way

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(Photo: Getty images) John Harbaugh said the Ravens feel comfortable playing at Heinz Field. I ignored it, but for a good reason.

(Photo: Getty images)
John Harbaugh said the Ravens feel comfortable playing at Heinz Field. I ignored it, but for a good reason.

Hopefully, your Wednesday felt incomplete.

OK, so I know that it is most likely nobody noticed one of my columns did not appear in the Trib on Wednesday. Still, since this might happen from time and time again, the least I can do is explain.

As noted before, and again after that, I am a bit uneasy with this new gig. I like it. On some days, I’ve loved it. However, with so much of my identity centered on having been a reporter, or as I liked to think of it a story finder, going cold into a world of opinion writing has not been without some longing for my old way of doing things.

So far, the biggest difference I’ve noticed between what I once did and what I now do is the conversations with athletes, coaches, management, etc. The tone has changed. Whereas I used to go into conversations with an idea and ask questions to which I most often knew the answer, I now approach these talks with an opinion fully formed and often only seeking a quote to work into that narrative.

Can’t say yet if this is the right approach. Can’t say the approach is different to anybody but me. Can say, though, that it really feels different to me, in that I’m not really building a professional relationship with the people I write about. There is a built-in disconnect because to me there is a difference between writing a hard but fair piece as a beat reporter and delivering a hard but fair opinion as a columnist. Seems to me I can’t allow myself to get as close to subjects now as I would have when on the Penguins beat.

(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media) Look, who we choose to like doesn't always make sense. Even for journalists.

(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media)
Look, who we choose to like doesn’t always make sense. Even for journalists.

A critical distance is always a necessary for a reporter. There is a line, and though it can move, a beat reporter should never cross it. Look, every beat reporter has at least one subject about whom he or she likes writing, the person to which he or she connects in an unexplainable way for reasons her or she would rather not explore because thinking about it invites delusional presumptions. What I mean to say is, beat reporters all have That Person We (Try) To Do Right By – and we all know who that person is for me. So, by acknowledging this not-so-secret part of the reporting game, my intention is not to brag but rather draw attention to the problem I’ve had so far in switching from beat reporter to columnist.

Know how you get That Person? You spend years talking. You build a relationship. You build trust. You figure out how this dynamic will work for both parties. As a news reporter, you’re not (or shouldn’t be, at least) in a position to take shots at the people you cover, so there really is no danger in building deep, trusting professional relationships.

 

Columnists do things different.

I have noticed the difference in only three months as a columnist. I still depend on people giving me information, but not I’m depending on beat reporters and their sources more than my own. I can’t be everywhere. They are a specific somewhere all the time. Most of the deep, trusting professional relationships are theirs now. I may build some, but they will always be different than the way it works between a beat reporter and the people on his beat.

I’m quite cool with this, actually. Those relationships often made me uncomfortable. They were tricks, allowing me to think I knew somebody I covered. I learned over time that is never the case.

Also, it feels disingenuous for me to try finding That Person or several of Those People in this columnist role. Last thing I want is one of these athletes to think I might be on his or her side. My job now includes calling people on their mistakes. Whatever members of this audience might think, that wasn’t my job before. I don’t deny having an edge to my writing style as a beat reporter, but in print I did not call people out. That’s the line I drew between beat work and column writing, and while I acknowledge going right up to it, I never crossed it.

I thought I would need time to get comfortable taking hard stances. I thought wrong. I remember trying to explain this to somebody within the Penguins organization after writing this column before training camp. This person called to say I had irked a lot of people with what I had written. I said I figured that would be the case. As we talked, this person and I each had a moment of realization about how my job, and our professional relationship, had become different. We ended this talk on good terms, with a clear understanding that I had just been doing my job in writing that column. He didn’t have to like what I wrote, but he understood that I was not in a position to particularly care, because I’m not looking to take positions that will be well liked.

Our relationship changed during that phone call. So did my understanding of my new way of working.

Take a listen to the latest podcast of Rossi Radio. Topics include Mr. Hockey, Mean Joe, and Game 7s from the media point of view:

http://sportstalk.triblive.com/download/1029ROSSI14.mp3

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

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Rossi: Finding the X spot

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(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media) Ike Taylor has hinted he reads comic books. I like Ike!

(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media)
Ike Taylor has hinted he reads comic books. I like Ike!

 

I’m trying to do two things at once.

The Steelers open their dressing room to the media around noon on Thursdays. It is one of two opportunities to speak with players. The other comes around 3:30 p.m. The scene usually looks the same every time: Some players at chairs in front of their locker stalls, others walking in and out carrying food from the cafeteria, equipment staff scrambling, and near the Steelers emblem in the center of the room We The Media stand waiting for our targets to show. The waiting is the hardest part, but you take it on faith that you’ll be rewarded.

On this Thursday, I’m here to find a column and work a feature story to run at a later date. My targets are a defensive lineman, a franchise quarterback and the head coach, but I also can’t resist the cornerback with a comic-book character on his mind.

Jumping into a scrum – a We The Media term for group interview – I overhear Ike Taylor talking about “Wolverine.” He has no ties to the University of Michigan. He is referencing his injured forearm. Standing to his right, nearly tucked into another player’s stall, I try hard not to grin. Ike is doing what would have me made fun of by football players when I played in high school. Ike is comparing real life to comics.

This feels like vindication.

This feels like a chance I cannot miss. I decide then that my column will somehow, in some way, work this angle. I’ll do it for all the boys who read comics and play sports, and for the men they become.

(Photo: Marvel) Magneto is more than just a cool helmet.

(Photo: Marvel)
Magneto is more than just a cool helmet.

Some of us are sports reporters.

Others are into a second decade of playing in the NFL.

I’m a Marvel man myself. I suspect most Steelers dig DC, for obvious reasons.

That’s what I wanted to say near the end of his scrum. Instead I pressed about potential momentum from big wins. Ike wouldn’t bite. I asked him three questions on the topic. Taylor controlled his message as would Magneto lead bullets fired upon him.

This column managed to get at both Taylor’s message and his inner comic geek, and for that reason it was one of my favorites. It was more a reflection of what I’m really like: weirdly connecting dots to get at my point.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

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Rossi (Radio): Who is the Penguins’ top rival?

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(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media) The Penguins looked different against the Flyers on Wednesday night. That's only because they wore those awesome throwbacks, though.

(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media)
The Penguins looked different against the Flyers on Wednesday night. That’s only because they wore those awesome throwbacks, though.

 

They offered me a radio show.

I said, “Sure.” I thought, “Umm, you don’t really dig listening to sports talk shows on the radio.” So, after spending about a month trying to figure out what my own radio show would sound like, I decided that it should sound like a conversation I would have with trained sports talk show hosts.

That is why Rossi Radio, which airs live here at 1 p.m. on Wednesdays, is really Rossi, Laird, Steigerwald and Taylor Radio. Technically, I’m the draw. Actually, all I do is come up with a couple of conversation topics and start talking with some colleagues.

There really is only one rule: Tell stories.

Everybody has an opinion, and in the mad world of social media everybody’s opinion can be carried to places far, far away. As long as I’m doing a radio show, the plan will be to offer opinions, but mostly attempt to tell stories that may have led to those opinions.

It’s a work in progress, but I do hope you’ll listen.

The topics this week are: Marc-Andre Fleury’s future with the Penguins, the hockey club’s best rival, and mistakes we in the media make: http://sportstalk.triblive.com/download/1022ROSSI14.mp3

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

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Rossi: Passing on a hockey night in Pittsburgh

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(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media) Marc-Andre Fleury won another NHL game on Saturday night. I chose to skip it. He'll live, I'm sure.

(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media)
Marc-Andre Fleury won another NHL game on Saturday night. I chose to skip it. He’ll live, I’m sure.

The Penguins played in Pittsburgh on Saturday night, and I stayed away.

That was the best hard decision of my weekend.

Over the years, as colleagues have transitioned off a beat, their stories have shared similarities. They were burnt out. They were no longer stimulated. They were done. Then they moved on and they could not stay away. They became obsessively possessive of a past they had no longer wanted. Maybe there is a name for whatever kept them wanting to go back to what they knew was no longer theirs. For me that name is fear. I had to stay away from Consol Energy Center to recognize it.

Early during my Saturday, I was sure I would go to watch the Penguins play the Islanders. My columns run Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so without a deadline to consider, this game was an opportunity for me to just go and watch. On the beat, I never watched enough of the games. There was always something to write, somebody to chase down, something. It was one of the first things I told my longtime tag-team beat partner, Josh Yohe: “You’ll be amazed how little hockey you actually watch on this job.” That conversation came about three months after I had covered a Stanley Cup run that featured at least five classic contests, all of which I watched mostly on a TV from a media room, if at all. I would spend the earliest hours of the next day watching recordings of the games I had just written about, hoping to see them for the first time, really.

So, yeah, watching the game on Saturday night seemed liked a great idea. Finally, I could just watch without the concerns that can cripple a beat reporter. I could take a long look at coach Mike Johnston’s system, see if the power play was working or just scoring, get a feel for the Penguins’ play without the puck. This would be fun.

Except, it wouldn’t have been fun.

That is the thought I came around to sometime Saturday afternoon. I had started watching the WVU-Baylor tilt, and it was because I had a rooting interest. I’m a WVU grad. I had planned to spend my Saturday afternoon shopping for a new exercise bike, but (because tablet technology rocks) I could do that while watching the WVU-Baylor game on TV. By around 4 p.m., the game was over, I had an idea about what bike I would buy, and dinner with some friends seemed like a much better idea than checking out Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

(Photo: Steph Chambers/Trib Total Media) Kevin White seemed to catch everything for the Mountaineers, so I'm glad I caught that on Saturday afternoon.

(Photo: Steph Chambers/Trib Total Media)
Kevin White seemed to catch everything for the Mountaineers, so I’m glad I caught that on Saturday afternoon.

No offense, fellas.

Something about watching the WVU-Baylor game started my subconscious working. I had spent most of my last decade spending Saturday nights watching Crosby and Malkin, and on many of those nights I would wonder what it was like for my friends who were just getting together for dinner. How did that work?

Turns out it works fairly simple. You meet, eat, chat a bit, and come home to watch the third period of the Penguins game on the TV. That was my Saturday night, and on this Sunday morning I realize it was a necessary step for me.

Staying (mostly) away from the Penguins is the hardest thing I’ve had to do as the Trib’s columnist. Since they opened training camp, I’ve tried to be around just enough to stay in the loop – though, that can just as easily be done by talking to old sources – and not so much that I’m stepping on the toes of the Trib’s new beat team.

I keep trying to figure out why I would have wanted to spend an off night watching the team I used to cover play, and I think I have part of the answer.

Fear… that colleagues would judge harshly me not being at the game, that some players would forget me, that new coaches would not recognize me, that laziness was already showing itself in this new role.

However, it was just a hockey game, and the Penguins will play at least 38 more of them in Pittsburgh this hockey season. Choosing to skip one on Saturday night, because I finally could, did not tilt the earth differently. It might help expand my world, though.

See, being afraid is the how we get caught chasing our pasts.

 

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

 

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Rossi: Learning on the job.

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(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media) Nothing Pitt running back James Conner did on Thursday night would have changed my column.

(Photo: Chaz Palla/Trib Total Media)
Nothing Pitt running back James Conner did on Thursday night would have changed my column.

 

At 45 minutes past the self-imposed deadline my column was short by 32 lines, and I’m sitting in a working press box, so I can’t even scream.

Nothing had prepared me for situations like the one I faced Thursday night. In and of itself, that continues to surprise me about this columnist gig. It’s only been three months, but I am convinced that I will never feel comfortable writing columns.

That’s especially true at night.

This is a completely new feeling, because I have always felt comfortable writing off night games. That was true from the days when I dictated my stories from a pay phone at a McDonalds in Blacksville, a small West Virginia town that is home to Clay-Battelle High School, or as I remember it, my first newspaper beat.

Even then, while working (barely, as my editor at the time would say) as a part-time Dominion Post reporter, writing stories about games felt right, good even. I was 19, but the procedural process of writing on a tight deadline felt normal. I picked an angle, wrote about it, filled in some holes with a few facts and quotes, and that was that. Then, and I’m talking way back in 1997, I would need to hit a word count of 150. Over a decade later, early in my tenure as the Penguins beat reporter for the Trib, my word count was around 500. The blueprint did not change, though. I picked an angle, wrote about it, filled in some holes with a few facts and quotes, and that was that.

There was no pressure.

There was no nervousness.

That’s because there was no point to pressure or nervousness. The game would end, and when it did, I had to send a story about that game to my editors. There wasn’t an option, so there was no reason to make it a bigger deal than what it was: my job.

It was a job I took perverse pride in, too. Not everybody could do this part of the job. I could, and I was proud.

 

I hate reading game stories.

Still do. They do not interest me in the slightest. So, I never tried to write one. I just tried to write a story about the team I covered, and to me there was a difference. Game stories had details about who did what and when. Stories about the team I covered were just a continuation of the narrative. My intention, for better or worse, wasn’t for everybody. I sought to show the readers what’s really important to the overall narrative. Every season was a book. Each week was a chapter. Stories off practices were no different than ones off games. Every story had to move the overall narrative forward. My job when writing stories was to pinpoint only what was important enough to write about, especially when it came to writing about the games.

Now, I had a trick. I’m sure all writers of game stories have tricks. Mine was to always use the most obvious thing to my advantage.

Games are won and lost. Readers have rooting interests. I always started with a fundamental belief that my audience had a rooting interest, and its good guy would either win or lose. Having that to work with, the rest came easy. Specifically when writing about the games, I could write about what just happened to the hero and where the hero went from this very point.

It doesn’t work that way with columns. It didn’t work that way with this column.

 

It’s only been about three months.

Still, I’m fairly confident in making this blanket statement about columnists: We think way too much.

This is dangerous. This can make us look like fools. This is what gets us into trouble. Well, this is what I think probably gets me into trouble when writing columns off a game, especially a game played at night. I’ve already written three columns off football games that ended after I filed my column. I did not know the result.

Think about that.

Think about this: I knew before writing I would not know the result. My job had become delivering an opinion piece from a game that was happening, just not one about the actual game. The push-it deadlines go to the beat reporters. Columnist can write around a result.

This is the way of life in the part of Newspaper Land where I live. I’m cool with it because I can’t change it, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed me – perhaps for the poorer.

 

I don’t love my latest column.

It felt forced upon filing it, and it feels incomplete after several more reads.

With hindsight, I should have focused entirely on my belief that Pitt needs its own football stadium. I should have pointed out the obstacles instead of casually offering that building a new stadium “won’t be easy.” I should have not written at all about the football program’s on-field results and only about the lack of atmosphere at Pitt home games.

On the ride to Heinz Field on Thursday afternoon, I noticed emptiness in the parking lots. I thought about the lack of buzz leading into a prime-time college football game played by the city’s university. I walked into a stadium that I knew would be half-full and I committed to a column idea, and I wrote that Pitt students and alumni deserved better than the malaise I had observed.

Truth is, the Trib’s readers deserved better from their sports columnist. I didn’t make a point with the column. I just wrote stuff. I didn’t direct a narrative. I just acted on an observation and with a deadline in mind.

I’m acknowledging these doubts publicly because I plan to use this blog for personal pieces that provide readers a window into what goes on in my writing life. Entries won’t always be this long and probably won’t be daily, but they will attempt to move the narrative forward.

It’s a very specific narrative.

The only way I’ve ever made sense of life is to write stories about other people. I’m trying to make sense of becoming a columnist, and to do that I think it’s time to start writing my stories.

For you, the blog can be about learning how I approach the job. For me, the blog can be about learning.

For my first lesson: The blueprint cannot change. Pick an angle. Write about it. Fill in some holes with a few facts and quotes. That will be that, and that will be how it is going forward.

 

Thanks for reading.

Be EXCELLENT to each other,

Rossi

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