MISSING MR. BILL
How often do you forge one of your life’s most important relationships with someone who got your name off the men’s room wall?
I know that if you’re a baseball fan and happened to stumble onto this blog post, you’re going to probably stumble off just as quickly because I’m not analyzing the prospects that the Toronto Blue Jays might be getting in this looming blockbuster deal with Seattle and Philadelphia (though from the names I’m hearing, they are great ones).
Or you’ll be bummed that I am not prognosticating which of the 150-plus free agents will be going where and what effect that will have on their team’s 2010 hopes, the state of baseball in general and global warming.
Or you’ll be disappointed because I’m not logging on to provide the earlier-promised recap of the recent Winter Meetings in Indianapolis (an appallingly bad internet connection at our hotel kept me from being able to give you guys “real time” blog). And by this time, you’ve probably read all there is to read about THAT event, via umpteen blogs, twitters, Facebook entries and every other form of social media.
Instead I’m here to write about Bill Koenig.
And I can pretty much guarantee that if Bill were still with us in body (I know he’s here in spirit), he would definitely NOT have a Twitter account or Facebook page.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of the way-too-early passing of a great writer, a great mentor, a great friend and a great person. And while I know I may often be given to overstatement, I bring to you as confirmation this column written about him 10 years ago by another great writer-mentor-friend-person, Paul White, who is very definitely NOT given to overstatement.
The original Minor League Editor at what was once Baseball Weekly and once the absolute go-to paper for all things baseball — and ONLY things baseball — Bill had moved down to DC from Rochester, where he was the long-time Red Wings beat writer, when BBW launched in 1991.
I was, at the time, the beat writer at the Potomac News (it has a new name now) covering the Class A Prince William Cannons (then the Yankees, now the Potomac Nationals), in my third year covering the club. I’d moved down to the area from New York City, thinking that I’d parlay being a Minor League beat writer into one day covering the Yankees or Mets.
It took approximately one season for me to fall so madly in love with the Minors that any aspirations of ever “moving up” to the big leagues evaporated into the muggy northern Virginia summer night’s air. I’ve been lucky enough (well, so far, anyway) to somehow cobble out something of a living covering the Minor Leagues and only the Minor Leagues pretty much full-time since then.
I would not have been so lucky had Bill Koenig not happened to enjoy attending Cannons games on a regular basis.
The team would (I learned second-hand) print out my articles and post them over the urinals in the men’s room (they did not do this in the ladies’ room). So Bill got to know my byline and my writing quite well.
It might seem obvious that we would meet at the park. However neither of us were really “press box” kinds of people. Both of us preferred to sit in the stands, in his case in the upper rows of the bleachers and in my case down behind home plate with the scouts and players’ wives and girlfriends (often with baby in tow if I couldn’t find a sitter).
Who knows if our paths would have crossed at all had we not bumped into one another one evening while picking up press notes.
I introduced myself and his response, as Paul White notes in his column, was “I know who you are, I read your articles on the men’s room walls.” We watched that night’s game together and he convinced me to send a resume and clips to Paul, then the editor-in-chief, in case there might be an opening. I was reluctant because I figured the paper, the first of its kind, probably had a complete storage room filled top to bottom with applications from every baseball writer in the country.
Truth is, I wasn’t far off. But Bill invited me to lunch, gave me a tour of the office, introduced me to Paul and the staff and miracle of miracles, a few months later a job DID open up and by May 1992 I was a member of the Baseball Weekly staff. I know Bill’s input had something to do with it.
I started as an agate-slinger, editing box scores and other notes. I also helped Bill compile the weekly Minor League notes (back in those days we actually called every single Minor League team every week to get player notes and highlights from them) and even wrote occasional Minor League features for his section.
Though I was moved onto the Major League side for much of 1993-1994, as one of the columnists/feature writers, my heart remained firmly on the Minor League side. In August 1994, when the big strike tore apart much of baseball and ruined my beloved Montreal Expos’ shot at the World Series title, the paper underwent a massive staff reorganization.
Bill was promoted to senior feature writer and I was reassigned to his former position of Minor League editor (In five words: The Job Of My Dreams).
By being given free rein to write about anything and everything, Bill’s writing became even more widely read by the general baseball fan rather than just those who flipped to the Minor League section rather than past it.
For the next five years, the hundreds of thousands of Baseball Weekly readers got to enjoy the remarkable prose and insight and wisdom of one of the true great baseball scribes.
And for those five years, I had the pleasure and privilege to sit next to him and try to soak it in — I would often stop my own work to listen to him conduct phone interviews. He was the master at making them conversational and informative and eliciting information and stories that you know 99 percent of reporters would never get.
But even more than being a brilliant writer and mentor, Bill was a wonderful friend. Paul’s story is right on target (of course) in that it’s almost impossible to describe Bill’s smile, his laugh, his sense of humor. He could be snarky (before snarky was even a word, which it apparently still isn’t according to my auto-correct) with the best of them.
And while he was always the ultimate gentleman, he could also tell a few definitely-NOT-for-publication stories that make me giggle to this day when I remember them (and no, I’m not repeating them here). Some may have sounded like urban legends to most but as far as I was concerned, if Bill told them, they had to be true.
My favorite “Bill as a friend” story. One thing he loved as much as baseball was college basketball. One wintry weekend he had tickets to a game where my favorite college team, UMass, was playing at George Washington. An unexpected blizzard found me without a babysitter at the last minute and unable to join him as planned, so I watched the game on TV from home, devastated at not being able to go and root for my guys, especially my favorite UMass player, Dana Dingle.
Now to understand Bill, you have to realize this is a guy who despite his passion for the game, would never resort to “fandom” or get an autograph or anything like that in about a million years. But that day, for some reason I can’t recall but had to do with a
charity being run by then-GW coach Mike Jarvis, all the fans received 8-x-11 sheets of yellow paper with the No. 3 on them — which happened to be Dingle’s uniform number.
And when I got to my office the next Monday morning, there on my desk was a yellow sheet of paper with the No. 3 and the note: “To Lisa: Dana Dingle, #3.”
Bill had actually taken the sheet, gone down to the floor after the game and gotten me Dana Dingle’s autograph. Need I tell you it is something I cherish to this day, both the autograph itself and the appreciation of what it meant for Bill to do that for me.
Oh, and did I mention he was a helluva a drummer? I seem to recall his big number was “Topsy Part II.” I know everyone who had the pleasure of attending his wedding to his soul mate, Marlene, will remember one of the highlights of the evening being when he sat in on the drums.
10 years ago today, at 50 years old, Bill’s huge heart gave out. Honestly, all these years later, there’s not a day that goes by that there isn’t something that makes me think of him … a Steely Dan song (I went to my first Steely Dan concert with him at Merriweather Post Pavilion), reading the name of one of his old favorite players with the Orioles or Rochester, a laugh that sounds like his.
Tomorrow will mark the 28th anniversary of the passing of my mother, also at a ridiculously young age, and I will mourn her and miss her then as I do every day.
But today I am thinking about Bill.