Earlier this week, I was reading my daily a.m. mobile news. I followed my traditional routine of ESPN, CNN, TMZ and then the Bleacher Report. Most mornings, I spend about 20 minutes capturing news, sports and entertainment. This particular morning though, my 20 minutes were extended thanks to an inc.....
The article about Rocker, the rebellious, outspoken, “I Wanna Rock” one-time Major League Baseball phenomenon, is awesome (and what’s even more awesome is reading his Twitter fights. The guy rarely writes a tweet other than to virtually fight with anyone who criticizes him (https://twitter.com/johnrockerbook). But something else in the story gave me a special feeling in my belly –what the great Will Clark did to Pearlman.
BOWLING FOR BALL PLAYERS
It was 2000 and I was preparing to wrap-up my freshman year at Drake University. I had done everything possible to beef up my writing resume: covered all high school sports for the Urbandale, Iowa local paper; became a sports columnist at the Times-Delphic, Drake’s student newspaper; and wrote for as many magazines as possible. While my writing wasn’t the best in college (as a fellow Drake student once attempted a criticism by saying my writing was the level of a 5th grader), I was certainly determined to write my way into as many opportunities as possible.
As the end of my freshman year was nearing, I talked my way into an opportunity with the Wednesday Journal, a local weekly newspaper in Oak Park, Ill. – my hometown (live with the parents, save a buck). The sports editor said he would give me a few chances to write stories locally, but wanted me to primarily focus on writing a bowling column (a bowling what?). Yes, a bowling column.
At first, I wanted to argue this new beat.
“Don’t you know who I am? I am a columnist at Drake University,” I wanted to fire back (sarcastically, of course). However, I decided to make lemonade out of bowling balls. Rather than fighting it, I offered a counter offer.
“Yes, I would be glad to write that this summer, however, in exchange I want a summer press pass to both the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox.” Thinking he would refute this even exchange –he said yes.
WELCOME TO THE BIG LEAGUES
The first game I covered was at Comiskey Park (since, rebranded The Cell). I walked up to the press entrance, handed over my ID and I was in. I clearly remember walking onto the field for batting practice. I remember the smell. I remember the sounds – cracks of the bat, the PA, and the crowd. I remember that special feeling in my tummy – and a feeling of being overwhelmed with the fact that I was going to be able to talk with anyone I wanted.
The first player I ventured to speak with was Derek Jeter (as the White Sox were playing the Yankees). I was working on a story about remembering your childhood. While Jeter was just a kid then, I figured he would be a good starting point to my dream summer.
I walked up to him in the visiting locker room. “Derek, can I ask you a question,” I said. “When you were a kid, did you dream of being at this level? You know, did you always dream about being a ball player?”
After giving me a great response, he laughed, grabbed my arm and walked me over to Scott Brosius (who was wrapping up his career). “Ask this guy if he can even remember his childhood. He’s probably too old to remember,” he laughed, as I prepared for Brosius to sock Jeter in the face (he didn’t, he just laughed).
My first experience was solid. I walked up to a great athlete, asked a question and was one of the guys. As I walked away from the clubhouse, I was greeted by a beat reporter for the Chicago Tribune who said, “Listen, you don’t belong here. Leave the questions to the real reporters.” I was taken aback, but brushed it off.
It was about the 7th inning when Chris Singleton, who played for the White Sox at the time, drilled a foul ball back at the press box, nearly taking off my head while denting the short wall behind me. I picked up the ball – figuring I had just received a great souvenir for my first day of work.
“Give me that ball,” the beat reporter said. “You don’t get to keep those thing.”
“Sorry, but if some real person who works for the team wants to take it away, they can, not you,” I fired back.
The summer continued. I went back and forth from Comisky to Wrigley Field – interviewing the biggest players in the game for my big planned story. Some players were nice, like Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Edmonds – and some were dicks, like beat reporters and Will Clark.
THE WILL CLARK SLAP IN THE FACE
It was midway through the summer. My story was coming along nicely (as were my regular bowling columns). On this warm day, I was preparing to interview one of my favorites growing up – Will Clark. Whenever I would play pickup baseball in front of my house, I would tell everyone I was Frank Thomas, Mark Grace or Will Clark. Clearly, at that time, I loved being first basemen.
Per usual, I took the Red Line to Wrigley. Walked the short block to the field. Gained my press access and walked down the stairway onto the field. Since the Cardinals had brought on Clark (Mark McGwire was battling injuries), I knew he would be the final piece to my story. I walked into the visitor’s locker room, through the dugout, and saw one of my heroes – Mr. Will Clark. I took a deep breath, as I usually did to calm my nerves of meeting my favorites, and walked up to him.
What happened next was nothing a deep breath could have prepared me for. Just like with Jeter, I asked if I could ask him a few questions. And that’s where my questions stopped.
“Who the f--k are you,” he said. He said it with a half smile. I figured he was just messing around with me.
“I am Nick Powills and I work with the Wednesday Journal. I am working on…”
“The Wednesday f-----g, what?” he shouted back. “You didn’t say the Chicago Tribune did you?”
“No sir, it’s a weekly newspaper out of Oak…”
This continued. For what felt like an eternity. It’s funny to look back on situations, especially those where you feel you know someone because you admire them and they end up being a dick. Similarly, when Pearlman went to interview him he said:
I'd interviewed Clark once before, during his time with the Texas Rangers, and when I asked whether his foot hurt he barked (ferociously), "I broke my f-----g foot!" This time, Clark noticed my press credential was turned backward against my shirt.
"Why's your pass turned over?" he asked.
"Oh," I said. "You're right."
I flipped it over. Clark leaned toward me and read the small writing.
"Jeff Pearlman?" he asked.
"Jeff Pearlman! Jeff f-----g Pearlman!" Clark's cackle filled the room.
"Jeff f-----g Pearlman! Now why the f--k would anyone in here want to talk to you? Why the f--k would we wanna talk to you, after what you did to Rocker? Why?"
This was awkward.
"No wonder you have your pass backward, you f-----g coward! Nobody here is ever going to talk to you. No f-----g way!"
"Did you have a problem with the way I wrote that story?" I asked (dumbly).
"Are you kidding me?" Clark replied. "Are you f-----g kidding me?"
After reading Pearlman’s article, plus this one on Deadspin, I suddenly felt comfort in the fact that I was not the only one to get ripped – nor, the only one to find success afterward. In Pearlman’s story – he talks about the success that came from his John Rocker experience, stating: Can I say, with 100 percent certainty, that I'd be where I am right now (writing books for a living) without Rocker's fall? No. I can't. (I reached out to Rocker for this piece, but he did not respond.)
Can I say I would be where I am right now without getting bullied by Will Clark? No. I can’t, either.
When Clark was ripping me a new one, and questioned whether I worked for the Chicago Tribune, that beat reporter stood by watching the whole mess unfold. If he was trying to teach me a lesson or haze me, that was his opportunity to chime in (by the way, he still works at the Tribune). Nope, he remained on the sidelines.
However, as I walked away – red faced and deeply disappointed (I would no longer be saying I was Will Clark in pickup baseball), I noticed out of the corner of my eye a guy laughing at me. I figured he too was just another a-hole making fun of the poor kid. As I walked near him, on my way out of the locker room, he said, “Wow, that was tough. Are you walking up to the press box?” I replied yes – to which he reminded me that those moments happen to the best of us.
We ended up talking the whole game. Not once did I ask who he was – he did tell me he was writing a story about remembering the Cubs and the grit that came along with being a fan. I was impressed. As the 9th inning wrapped up and the Cubs racked up another loss – the guy handed me a piece of paper with his name and phone number – closing by saying, “Congratulations Nick. You just put yourself to the top of the list at Rolling Stone Magazine. I am an editor and would love to have you be an intern next summer.” To prove the experience, he also wrote about the Will Clark moment in a Harper’s Bazaar article in the summer of 2001.
Similarly to Pearlman’s experience – had Clark asked me to turn around my press pass he may have noticed one other piece to the story that I didn’t notice that day – I had restricted access (could have been a mistake, as that was the first and only day that had happened) – which should have prevented me from going into that locker room.
Bad things happen all the time. But when they happen to good people – hopefully another rainbow is waiting for them at the next turn.
For me, I opened a lemonade stand. I guess I owe Will Clark a thanks for that horrible, hero shattering moment. Who I really owe thanks to is my real first mentor, the editor Rich Cohen. Things happen for a reason – and that summer day f-bomb led to the start of a wonderful career.