One time, back in the early 1990’s, while covering the induction ceremonies for my radio station, I stopped by the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown. The Otesaga is a “grand old girl”, a hotel where you could easily envision Babe Ruth chugging down a beer or two, while chomping on his cigar and telling countless tales to fascinated listeners. Alas, this was more than 40 years after the Bambino’s death, but there was no shortage of stars there, believe me. As the likes of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial and Yogi Berra made their way to their rooms, the lobby was abuzz with an incredible energy. Reporters, fans and friends besieged the stars for interviews and autographs. After a while, in the mid-summer heat and humidity of the Leatherstocking Region, the hotel lobby became quite stuffy and sticky. I walked out to the back porch of the hotel. It was beautiful. Sunny, with a much-needed breeze blowing through. Rocking chairs were abundant across the massive deck overlooking bountiful gardens of the most colorful flowers you’ve ever seen. After cooling off a bit, I started to make my way back into the fray. I noticed a woman sitting in the rocking chair, seemingly oblivious to all the activity around her. Very thin, she sat wearing a pair of oversized sunglasses, rocking back and forth. I smiled and nodded as I walked past her. She acknowledged me with a slight nod. I immediately realized that she was Jean Yawkey, owner of the Red Sox. I introduced myself and told her of my lifelong love affair with her team. Tom Yawkey’s widow proved to be an engaging conversationalist. We chatted about the Induction weekend and the current state of “our” ballclub. The sense I got was that she appreciated being recognized, especially by a loyal citizen of the “nation”. I thought about how tough it must have been to be a woman in a mans’ world. I marveled at her style and her class and the dignity which she clearly possessed. Years later, long after she had passed away, I ran into someone who had known her. As I told him about the chance meeting at the Otesaga, he said- “Jean Yawkey was a tough old broad!” At first I thought that was not a very pleasant characterization of this stylish woman who was so nice to me that day. Then it dawned on me that she probably had to be a tough old broad for people to take her seriously. We are lucky that the Sox are in such capable hands these days. Let’s not forget, however, Jean Yawkey.
I have had some “chance encounters” over the years with some famous and not so famous folks. Last night at the Dinosaur Barbecue in Syracuse, Dan, myself and Jason Benetti, a young up and coming broadaster were at our table. The waitress told us that we had just missed rock legend, Daid Crosby of “Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young” fame. I once ran into wrestler Sargent Slaughter in the airport in Charlotte, and another wrestling legend, Ric Flair not once but 3 times in 3 different states. Florida at a convenience store in 1984 (he bought deodorant and Lite beer) In L.A. at my hotel in the mid ’90s and once in North Carolina a couple of seasons ago at a gym. One of my all-time favorite meetings took place while I was broadcasting Syracuse Basketball. We were playing in the NCAA tournament, and as a good journalist should do, I was always on the prowl for a good pre-game interview. I spotted Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax sitting near mid-court with his friend, CBS analyst, Billy Packer. I knew that Koufax had played college basketball in the mid-’50s at the University of Cincinnati. That would be my hook. I asked him for 5 minutes of his time, but he politely declined. We said our good byes and undaunted I found former Kentucky star Sam Bowie for my interview. (Bowie along with Hakeem Olajuwon, the 2 men drafted BEFORE Michael Jordan in 1984). We did our broadcast and after packing up the equipment, I looked for a spot to watch the next game. Sitting alone in the section previously occupied by the Syracuse Band, was Koufax. He motioned me over and invited me to join him. There I was alone with the great Sandy Koufax. He quizzed me on the Orangemen, we talked about baseball, and I even told him that my brother had once caddied for him at Orchid Island in Vero Beach. It was the most magnificent way to spend time watching hoops. With a few minutes left in the game, he excused himself, shook my hand and said so long. I was on Cloud Nine. You never know who you’ll meet or when or where.
Down the street from our hotel in Syracuse there is a Dunkin’ Donuts. I make the trek every morning for a cup of greatness, usually settling in with the newspaper. Thursday I ran into an old friend. In my 12 years in Syracuse, I spent 10 seasons broadcasting S.U. Basketball, among other things. In 1995-96 the Orangeman were good, so good in fact that they would face Kentucky in the NCAA championship game at the Meadowlands. Syracuse was lead by John Wallace, a 6’9 talent from Rochester. JW was an All- American who stayed for 4 years, back when kids did that. He would eventually play in the NBA for the Knicks, Miami, Detroit, Phoenix and Toronto. He was the only guy on that team to play in thte NBA. The WildCats featured future NBA players Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Walter McCarty, Derek Anderson, Tony Delk and Wayne Turner, Nazr Mohammed, Jeff Sheppard and Mark Pope. Kentucky won a hard fought game 76-67. After the game Coach Rick Pitino sought out a senior point guard named Lazurus SIms. “Z” was a seldom use player until his senior season. If Stephon Marbury had come to Syracuse instead of Georgia Tech, I contend that S.U. never would have made it as far as they did. Z was unselfish, distributing the ball to Wallace, Todd Burgan and Jason Cipolla. He could also score. He made some huge shots on March 22, 1996, S.U. battled back and eliminated Georgia. I remember that date because my daughter Carly was born that day. Anyway I saw Sims, we embraced and caught up. He is now a coach on Jim Boeheims’ staff. He meant a lot to the program and now he is giving back. Sports and the people you meet are amazing.