Last night was devastating. Things haven't been much better today. But it's never easy to lose a friend.
Dave Solomon and I were two of the last to leave the UConn football practice facility last night. I hung around while he and Roger Cleveland of the Waterbury Republican-American finished a final interview with UConn quarterbacks coach Joe Moorhead. Like always, I wanted to touch base with Dave and make sure we weren't overlapping too much in our coverage.
Dave, as usual, was in great spirits. He had his column, and was excited about a quote he had from coach Paul Pasqualoni. And you knew he would build a great story around it. He always did. As we walked to our cars in the parking lot, he asked if I was staying at UConn to write. I was. He said he would write at home.
"Take care, Chipster," he said as he approached his car.
"OK, see ya, Dave," I replied.
Had I known it would be our last "goodbye", I would have thought of something more meaningful to say. Within a few hours, I got the excruciating phone call that he never made it home. He died in a car accident on I-91 near his home in Meriden.
Dave was one of my favorite people, period. He always seemed to be in a great mood, and never missed an opportunity to needle me about something, while flashing his sly grin. Always quick with a joke, they were usually sarcastic and often whispered to whoever was sitting next to him in the middle of a press conference.
We took more than a few carpools to out-of-state events together. He'd do something like force me to listen to the all-Jimmy Buffett station on my satellite radio against my will for an entire trip to Yankee Stadium, then make up for it with his amazing knowledge of the highways of his native New York. "There's a little dip coming up in the left lane. You're going to want to get right, here." Find me a GPS with those tips.
But his writing, simply, was something to behold. He was to journalism what Larry Bird was to basketball or Neil Peart is to the drums; a guy you want to emulate even though it's darn near impossible, no matter how much practice you put in.
Not only could Dave craft a brilliant column, even on sports he didn't necessarily enjoy, but his resources were incredible. He broke countless major stories over the years. It was uncanny. Earlier this year I had a scoop on the UConn football coaching search, new information contrary to some national reports making the rounds. My cell phone rang as I frantically typed. It was Solomon. I thought to myself, "I got him...I finally know something he doesn't." Of course, Dave not only knew what I knew, his sources had told him Pasqualoni was offered and was about to accept the position.
It's not easy to one-up a giant.
We had some memorable times away from the office, too, none more so than the Home Run Derby prior to a New Haven Ravens game in 2002. Dave had written a column about Ravens hitting coach Steve Balboni, the former big leaguer who, Solomon opined, still looked like he could launch a few out of Yale Field. Ravens management seized the moment, and devised home run contest between Dave (who would have a temporary fence set up midway through the outfield), Balboni and Luis Sojo, then coaching in the Eastern League. They even ordered a few thousand Solomon bobble head dolls to give away at the gate -- how many sportswriters can boast of that honor?
Dave enlisted me to serve as his batting practice pitcher for the event. We practiced for weeks in anticipation. On the day of the contest, over 5,000 people jammed into the park. I'd thrown so many practice pitches to that point that my arm was gone. Pain seared through my rotator cuff with every pitch. Yet when it came time for Dave to hit, he suddenly developed the batting eye of Kevin Youkilis. Pitch after perfectly good pitch went past with no swing. He was only going to go after the ones in his wheelhouse. It didn't take long before I lost the strike zone completely.
"Dave, you have to swing ," I said, drenched in sweat, during a break. "This is just like batting practice."
"I can't afford to waste swings against these guys," he said.
That's how he approached his writing. Nothing was wasted, no words, ideas or sources. His columns were perfectly written, his arguments laid out in a thought-provoking, often humorous manner.
If Dave said he liked something you wrote, well, you knew you did something right. I remember breathing a deep sigh of relief when he mentioned he enjoyed the "I was thinking" column, his Sunday staple, that I wrote while he was on vacation. Reassured, I quickly went back to re-read the column again to absorb what worked.
The sports world has lost a great man, husband and father. Rest in peace, my friend.