Permit a former journalist to tell a few war stories. Imagine me draped over a bar, if you like, at one of the journalist watering holes I’ve known over the years — Pat’s Idle Hour, Mel’s, the Brass Elephant, the CVP in Towson.
The first story harkens back to when I was an in-way-over-my-head political reporter for the San Antonio Light, sent to the border to write some sort of news feature on Lloyd Bentsen, the local “boy” who was Dukakis’s running mate. Being me (perverse), I ended up writing a piece about Republicans in South Texas, who were generally considered to have No Chance in the ’88 election, although George H.W. Bush carried the state easily. At the time, it was possible to vote a straight party tickety by pulling just one lever — aka una palanca. My lead centered on that, something about whether the Republicans would ever stand a chance in the land of una palanca. (I’m not going to swear by that spelling.) Later, my father reported back to me that a Big East Coast Newspaper had used a similar construction. I was flattered. It was the only evidence I had that I was doing anything right.
Skip ahead to October 1995. I was assigned to write a story about former pitcher Bobby Ojeda, who had agreed to speak at a local psychiatric hospital’s annual meeting, in part because he credited doctors there with saving his life after the infamous boating accident that killed two of his Cleveland Indian team mates. Because of a classic newsroom miscommunication, I was told I had to do the interview by phone; there were no funds for travel. (My editor thought Ojeda lived in California, but he was a three-hour drive away, in New Jersey.) I did all my reporting by phone — a lengthy interview with Ojeda, his agent, his doctor, his wife, and his best friend, Roger McDowell.
From the moment I got the assignment, my baseball savvy colleagues said: Have you read the Gary Smith profile of Ojeda from Sports Illustrated? It’s amazing, it’s incredible, no one could top that. Ultimately, I did read it, and my friends were right — no one was going to equal that story, prose-wise or reporting-wise. Still, I did my best. Ojeda was enormously generous, speaking at great length about very difficult things. He changed the way I thought about certain traumas, the capacity for recovery. He was, in short, one of the nicest people I ever interviewed.
The toughest interview was his friend, McDowell. He didn’t want to talk to me and once I got him on the phone, he plain didn’t want to talk. Didn’t want to tell his version of an anecdote Ojeda had already shared, about how McDowell had kept Ojeda from going AWOL from a Cleveland hospital where Ojeda was miserable. Didn’t want to take credit for anything. But at the end of the conversation, he suddenly said: You know, Bobby only survived because he’s so short. (For those who don’t know, Ojeda was one of three men in a boat that hit a pier. The other two were killed, one was virtually decapitated.)
It was a tantalizing detail, one I hadn’t read anywhere else, and I almost put it in the story. But then I decided that it went against what Ojeda had said he had learned at the hospital. No reasons, no answers, no explanations. He lived and his two teammates died. It was sheer luck, nothing more.
Shortly after the story was published, I went to hear Ojeda speak. When he walked in, I almost fainted. He’s incredibly tall, well over six feet. Later, I told him what McDowell had said. Ojeda’s wife rolled her eyes and said: “That sounds like Roger.”
But I’m not thinking about the Ojeda story today because of my near-miss. I’m looking at the old clip, one of the few I’ve saved, and wondering about my own research. How did I know that Ojeda wore a blue bandana to one of the funerals and “sobbed openly.” Was that based on something he told me, or cribbed from a Sports Illustrated photo, or the text itself? How did I know he was living on “margaritas, Doritos and salsa” when he first returned to Cleveland, or that his skin had a “greenish cast”? Where did I learn that there was a time that Ojeda couldn’t stomach the smell of coffee?
These are not idle questions for any Baltimore journalist, past and present, this week. Paste this link into your browser — http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlDC/newspapers/another_one_bites_the_dust_30428.asp — and tell me what you think. Is this plagiarism? Laziness? How far do journalists have to go to rewrite non-proprietary information?
Oh, and in a classic Smalltimore twist — one of Ojeda’s doctors would end up administering a personality test to me, in the twilight of my Sun career. This is the test that determined that my “sociopathy” score is off the charts, higher than the average sociopath’s. Thanks, Dr. McGee! It worked out really well for me.