Saturday, August 09, 2008

Wacky interviews

I was chatting with Mike DiMauro of The New London Day at yesterday's UConn media event, and told him every time I see Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Mike Cervenak on TV, I think of him and Steve Nalbandian, the Norwich Bulletin's old beat writer for the Norwich Navigators (now the Connecicut Defenders). When I was covering the now defunct New Haven Ravens for the Register, I'd head up to Norwich several times a year for games, and Cervenak was always in the lineup for the Navigators. He spent what seemed like a lifetime playing Double-A ball in Norwich, and was just a great guy.

DiMauro relayed the story of his first meeting with Cervenak, just after he had just joined the club. DiMauro and Nalbandian walked into the clubhouse to interview him postgame, and Cervie was sitting at his locker completely naked. When he saw the reporters approach, he jumped out of his seat, spent a while scratching his, uh, private area, and then, with a wide smile, offered a handshake. Now that's an icebreaker.

It got me thinking about some of the crazy interviews I've done since joining this business oh, so many years ago. Here are my top five most memorable interviews (though I'm sure I'll have more if I think a little harder):

5. Hablo sign language?

I got assigned the Ravens beat in 2000. They were the Double-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners that year, but I got the assignment a little too late to make the trip to their spring training home in Arizona.

So I met the team the day of their first practice at Yale Field. I had studied up on the statistics from the previous season, and figured I'd talk to some of the top players. I approached third baseman Luis Figueroa, who was a .330 hitter in Class A, and asked if he had a minute to chat. He stared at me for a while, a rather awkward silence. I asked again. No response. Finally, Figgie grabbed Ramon Vazquez, the team's shortstop, to help.

"He doesn't speak English," Vazquez said. "And he's deaf."

Turns out Figgie had lost his hearing after a childhood disease in Puerto Rico. He read lips, but only in Spanish. So Vazquez served as translator for what turned out to be a great story.

4. Will we need a live chicken, too?

Also on the Ravens roster that season was a pitcher named Damaso Marte, the same guy recently traded to the Yankees. Marte had been injured pretty much all year, but came off the disabled list for the Ravens playoff run.

Chatting with him wasn't easy. Marte's English wasn't great at the time. After a few questions, I asked what the problem had been with his arm. He told the story of how he had gone through a messy divorce in the offseason, and he believed his disgruntled ex-wife had put a voodoo curse on his pitching arm.

Figuring he was kidding, I asked Ravens radio broadcaster Bill Schweizer about Marte. "He's serious," said Schweizer, who had interviewed him for the pregame radio show. "He told me the same thing."

3. Nothing's unusual after "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou"

When you're a famous celebrity, you can do anything...including standing against the outfield wall on the field of play during a game.

When the Ravens left New Haven for Manchester, N.H., they were replaced by an independent league team. They decided to play a live scrimmage one afternoon a week prior to the season against a league rival, the Brockton Rox. It wasn't publicized, and I didn't even plan on attending until the radio guy called and told me I should get over there because a pretty cool guest had shown up.

Turns out Bill Murray was a part owner of Brockton, and drove up to Yale Field from his home in Westchester County, N.Y. to see the scrimmage.

"He's been here a while, and is getting ready to leave," the radio guy said.

"Where is he?" I asked.

"Out there," he said, pointing to the recognizable figure leaning against the left-center field wall while the game was being played.

So, we walked out there to meet him.

"Hi Bill," I said. "What are you doing out here?"

"Rox baseball!" Murray said, as if it was perfectly normal to stand on the field to watch a baseball game. We talked for a good 10 minutes while outfielders tracked down flyballs and base hits a few feet in front of us. Luckily, we didn't even have to dodge any gappers.

2. Quick change artist

I covered a high school football game about 10 years ago in the Valley. Can't remember if it was at Shelton or Derby, but you'll understand why the details remain fuzzy in a moment. I've successfully blocked them from my mind.

I interviewed the visiting coach on the field, and when I finished I searched around for the home coach. He had already left the field and was heading toward his office. I jogged after him, but couldn't catch him before he entered his office door.

Mind you, it couldn't have been more than 10 seconds before I walked into the office after him. But the coach was already completely nude and unwrapping a sandwich.

Able to hold off gasping in horror at the Montgomery Burns-esque figure standing before me (the coach was an older fellow), I wondered how someone could disrobe so quickly. The only reasonable explanation I could ascertain was that the coach had to be wearing a Velcro, tear-away coaching outfit, and must have reenacted the scene in "The Naked Gun" where Leslie Neilsen tears away his three-piece suit just before getting it on with Priscilla Presley wearing full-body condoms.

I can't even remember who the coach was, but it's probably because my eyes were bleeding so profusely.

1. Treehouse of Horror

I was covering a Yale men's hockey game at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York in 2003. The press box at the very old, very wooden rink isn't so much a media facility. It's more of a tree house. It's actually perched just above the arena lights, and to get up there you have to climb ladder steps nailed into the side of the wall. It's literally a vertical climb.

Normally, not a big problem. But I had broken my left arm about two weeks earlier, and had a cast that stretched from my hand up to just under my arm pit. Making the climb with a computer bag tossed over my shoulder was, to say the least, tricky.

After the game, I made the treacherous climb down and headed for the Yale locker room for the post-game interview. Problem: the door leading to the hallway to get there was locked. I walked all around the bowels of the arena trying to find a way to the locker room, but to no avail. I was lost in a labyrinth of ice-cooling pipes, vents and locked doors. Think of the scene from "Spinal Tap" (Hello, Cleveland! Hello, Cleveland!!). That was me.

Finally, I headed back up to the tree house and called Yale's assistant athletic director, who had made the trip upstate, on his cell phone to see if he could get me Yale coach Tim Taylor.

"He's already on the bus," he said. "I'll send him back to the locker room."

Before I could tell him I couldn't get to the locker room, he'd hung up. Wonderful. But about a minute later, I heard someone shouting my name from down below. It was Taylor.

"Timmy, I'd come down there, but it takes 10 minutes for me to get down these steps because of my arm," I yelled.

"Well, what do you want to know?" Taylor hollered back.

So I shouted questions down to him on the bench, and he shouted his answers back up to me, perched at least 100 feet above him and peering through the arena lights.

Definitely the most unusual interview I ever did.


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