Jeff Pearlman

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Rich O’Malley

#414
His goal was to attend a game at every Major League Baseball, National Football League, National Hockey League and National Basketball Association stadium—then chronicle the experience. Thanks to heart, grit, drive and Poke Nachos, the mission was accomplished. POSTED July 11, 2019

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Even though I’m a journalist who grew up desperately wanting to attend professional sporting events, and even though I’ve chronicles some amazing athletic achievements through the decades, and even though I know the smell of garlic fries in San Francisco, the bellowing of “Beer here!” in New York—well, I have no interest in seeing a game in every American stadium.

I just don’t. Because, to me, it’d all blend together into one overpriced mishmosh of hits and runs and tackles and slapshots and dunks. I dig games. Like, I truly, truly dig games. But is there anything particularly special in seeing, oh, Tigers-Rays at the Tropicana Dome? Or Raiders-Jets at MetLife? Meh. I’m not feeling it.

Rich O’Malley, on the other hand, feels it. The former New York Daily News editor is the new author of “One Lucky Fan,” a chronicling of his experiences catching a home game in every NHL, MLB, NFL and NBA stadium. Which is crackalicious crazy and bonkers and … riveting. It’s the sort of bucket list dream that nobody accomplishes. But Rich, well—Rich accomplished it. And here he is.

One can follow Rich on Twitter here, visit his website here and order “One Lucky Fan” here.

Rich O’Malley—welcome home. To the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Rich, so you’re the author of a new book, “One Lucky Fan,” that chronicles your efforts to see a home game in every Major League, NFL, NBA and NHL stadium. And, to be honest, that sounds sorta hellish. So … why? Why was this a goal?

RICH O’MALLEY: It started back in college, when some friends and I took a few road trips to see baseball stadiums. And that’s where most “stadium chasers” call it a day, because baseball parks are the most unique sports venues and each one (ok, not all of them) has its own little cool twist. But over 20-plus years, I started building a pretty impressive collection in the other sports, too. I had always wanted to write a book about my experiences, so once I knew I was going to do that, I decided my hook would be to get ‘em all. Every sport. No one else had ever written that book.

But I wanted a travelogue to be a big part of the book too. I wanted the reader to come along for the ride with me.

Now that kind of trip, nearly eight straight weeks, I would not recommend to anyone, because hellish isn’t even the word. It was mind-numbing, but as I say in the book, fun as heck at the same time. However, if you are really into seeing sports venues and exploring cities, running from airport to train to hotel to arena to hotel to sleep for a few hours to train to airport to the next place is not conducive to appreciating them. Take your time, as much as you’re able.

And my ultimate goal in OLF two-fold: I want readers to contemplate their own background as a fan, and then think about their own personal “what’s next?”

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J.P.: These days book deals are pretty friggin’ hard to come by. Your book was published by Post Hill Press. So what was the process? How did you go about landing it?

R.O.: This industry is indeed brutal, as I was warned by many going into this. I am fortunate to have one of those professors who didn’t stop fulfilling his role as a mentor when I walked out of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism with a master’s degree in my hand in 1998. Chicago journo and former Medill assistant dean Jon Ziomek has been a friend and ally for more than 20 years now, always encouraging me and advising me. He spent more than 30 freaking years shopping his gripping book about the 1977 Tenerife airline disaster, the deadliest in history, and finally signed a deal with Post Hill Press while I was working on OLF. I had received a number of rejections already and fully expected to self-publish from the get-go—and would have been fine with that. But he connected me to Debby Englander over there and she loved the idea and brought it to the president of the company, who also loved it. Suddenly, I had a publisher. The lucky in my title is no accident. That all said, self-publishing is a perfectly acceptable road for anyone thinking about writing a book and can be just as successful and fulfilling. The point is to get that damn book out of your head and into the world.

J.P.: Bluntly, what’s the worst stadium in America to catch a professional sporting event? And what makes it so bad?

R.O.: I call MetLife Stadium, home to my Jets (and the Giants), “a $1.6 billion gray pile of puke.” I ban it for life in the book, which is no small thing when your own team plays there! It is soulless and in the middle of nowhere. It has zero aesthetic appeal. Zero home-field advantage. It is a … Generic. Sports. Venue. Yet the jaw-dropping Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta was built for essentially the same price tag and is a modern marvel. What a boondoggle that dump in New Jersey is! The. Worst.

J.P.: Bluntly, what’s the best stadium in America to catch a professional sporting event? And what makes it so tremendous?

R.O.: You simply cannot get the gameday experience you will have in Green Bay anywhere else in North American sports, nor I’m guessing the entire world. First of all, the stadium itself is iconic; the Packers fans and traditions unmatched. And the experience spills out the gates of the stadium and into the tiny town where Lambeau Field seems like it was dropped from the heavens right in the middle of it. As I say in OLF, every sense is engaged. You see all the cars parked on lawns amid myriad BBQs taking place and all the garages open with giant TVs blaring the other games. You smell the brats cooking. You hear the “Go Pack Go” chant. And I’d encourage anyone wanting to go to Green Bay do so when it’s gonna be frigid out. Go for the ultimate Frozen Tundra experience. You will walk away knowing you’ve seen sports nirvana. And everyone is just so damn nice! Funny story: I needed to print a ticket and the box office couldn’t do it, so I walked up the block to a random door (I’m a New Yorker, I don’t normally do things like that, but desperate times and all) and knocked and a complete stranger let me in and set me up on her computer and went back to the kitchen to finish dinner while I printed out my ticket. Just unbelievable kindness.

J.P.: So I just read a 2016 Yahoo News piece about your departure from the Daily News. You took a buyout at a relatively young age. Why?

R.O.: So many reasons. All of them ridiculously sad. And maddening. Because journalism was (and still kinda is?) a shitshow. Because the 2016 election cycle, which lasted about as long as the Ming Dynasty, took an absolute beating on my soul and psyche. Because my boss, Jim Rich, who was kicking ass, was shown the door days before Election Day. And that was a sign to me that what we were doing, which was shining as bright a light as we could on the huckster who was about to become president, was no longer being appreciated by the front office and was probably going to take a severe hit. And I wasn’t interested in covering him and his soon-to-be administration like everyone else. I wanted the screaming front pages and truth-to-power coverage we were always known for, even if Archie and Edith in Queens cancelled their subscription. (A great business model? Probably not, but who the hell has figured out one that works anyway?) So I made the most difficult decision of my life and joined about 25 or so other colleagues who took the buyout and left my dream job. But again, I’m lucky—I had that chance. So many way-more-talented journos have since been sacked at the Daily News and outlets across the country. And the ones who still survive work daily with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. And these giant E-Corp (for all my fellow Mr. Robot fans) type ownerships reap in and dole out millions in dividends. And yet every year there are still more mass layoffs of on-the-ground journos. It’s monstrous.

By the way, it’s not my opinion that the newsroom under Jim’s leadership was kicking ass—less than six months after his departure, the NYDN newsroom was celebrating a Pulitzer Prize for a series that he led on NYPD abuses of power. That series and the changing of laws that resulted from it improved people’s lives. Years later, another cause The News championed ferociously under Jim, the Child Victims Act, passed into New York state law. Politicians literally (I mean it) hid from our reporters when we were demanding action in Albany seeking justice for people sexually abused as children. Everyone remembers the Trump front pages, but both of those series were going on concurrently with the 2016 campaign, and they are the most important things we can do as journalists. I was proud to be a small part of both. And while the betterment of society should be the end goal and reward, I certainly appreciated the validity that those ultimate victories provided in confirming in my mind that, yes, indeed, we were on the right track and doing exactly what we were supposed to be doing. Assholes.

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J.P.: Part II of that—on your way out you thanked a bunch of people on Twitter, then absolutely unloaded on Donald Trump. Um, I’m as big a loather of the man as you are. But why then? Why at that moment?

R.O.: When our leaders or systems fail us or threaten the general welfare, journalists need to play sentinel and expose it. That’s the job, and the crux of why I did it.

I just had to go back and look because I don’t even remember the specifics of what I said anymore! Pretty prescient, but not particularly perspicacious (how’s that for alliteration?!). It was the coming together of a perfect “Tweet” storm, I guess — of things that had weighed heavily on me for years, and I needed them out of my head and thought maybe they’d help people having similar internal struggles.

I had been mentioned in a couple of stories with a number of other folks about our departures. So I jumped on the fact that for about six seconds my name might mean anything to anyone and what I had to say might mean something to someone too. So I put down my thoughts and decided to post them (sometimes I write stuff just to write it). But here I definitely wanted to 1. Thank people, most importantly. 2. Give people a little insight into the decision making processes of The News with our Trump coverage 3. Confirm to people that journalists do know Trump is indeed a megalomaniacal lying piece of shit, even if other outlets were tying themselves in knots to write around that fact and normalize him, and 4. Warn people that things were gonna get real ugly and vigilance was needed.

My phone blew up with friends saying, “Umm … you might wanna check The Hollywood Reporter,” and other places who were writing about it. I didn’t expect that at all. Oops! I got a good laugh from right wing media tearing their hair out that “THIS is the guy behind so much of the BIASED coverage of Trump! WITHER JOURNALISTIC INTEGRITY!” As if truth is biased … we gave Hillary and Bernie front page whacks when we believed they earned it. We had plenty of blistering Obama ones over eight years, too. We shit on the Democratic mayor of NYC daily! But “integrity” only mattered when we attacked their guy. Believe you me though, they’d be happy to plaster their sites or airwaves with our front pages the days we’d go the other way.

But anyway, it wasn’t hard to see any of what’s going on today barreling down the pike. And that was the essence of my Tweetstorm rally cry, because that was an all-hands-on-deck moment to me. And it’s been inspiring to see the level of activism in this country since that election. Go us!

But in the end, there are kids in cages and tanks on the Mall and airports in the 1700s. Our nation’s government is a Fellini film. Nothing matters.

Meanwhile, I wrote a fun sports book to try and take people’s minds off of End Times – ta-da!

No, really, that was part of my motivation. People need the fun and the funny to live through this disaster. So I almost avoid politics entirely in the book. Almost.

Ok, I’m getting grumpy and I’m on the verge of going full-on Farty McOldTimer and yelling at clouds. And this is why I’m not back in journalism. Why’d you pull my politics string?! To paraphrase Jefferson in Hamilton, “Can we get back to sports now?”

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J.P.: So in order to reach your stadium goal, the book wraps with a 25,000-mile, two-month whirlwind tour from stadium to stadium. Why? How? Was it amazing? Awful? And what were you eating?

R.O.: The answer is yes, all of it. Every one of those emotions plus curse words plus tears plus fist-pumps.

I started out writing OLF with about 80 teams under my belt. So I needed to take the mother of all trips to get the final third in less than two months after two decades amassing the first two-thirds. I spent a coffee-fueled day in front of the computer hashing it out, but it was easier than I expected once I hit the right route. So starting Nov. 9, 2017, I would live out of a carry-on bag for 36 days in a row, hopscotching time zones 15 times before I got home for a one-night break. Then it was eight days in the southeast, four days back for Christmas, by which point I was deathly ill and couldn’t even celebrate, but then back out for the five final games in Texas and Oklahoma, culminating in Houston on New Year’s Eve 2017. The turning of a new year and the completion of my 123-team journey—synergy. I counted down the ball drop en Espanol watching Univision and passed out for four hours before I had to get to the airport for my flight home and return to real life. And, you know, write the book. It took weeks to process it all before I could even get one word down. I thought I’d be writing every day on the road, but the reality of a trip like that just didn’t allow me the time or mental space to do so. I mean, I gave up a free day in Seattle to pop up to Juneau, Alaska, for lunch to chalk up my 50th state. It was that kinda trip (and thank goodness for airline miles!).

What was I eating? Whatever, man! I had to remember to eat at times, my pace was so kinetic. My most common destination, because they’re often near stadiums, was Yard House. Their Poke Nachos were my go-to—a little healthy protein mixed with grains, perfect sustenance. Didn’t hurt that it meant I’d get to wash it down with some local brews wherever I was. Sometimes I’d eat at the arena, but knowing where I was going often dictated that decision: Crummy old dungeon? Find me some grub before I go. Brand-spanking-new pleasure palace? Let’s see what they’ve cooked up for me. Options are much better than they used to be across the board. For pete’s sake, I had great Indian food at a Twins game!

But on the whole, yes, it was a blur while I was out there. It all came into focus, slowly, in my rear view mirror, once I sat down to write though. It was like I actually got to relive the trip. I knew what I was getting into, and honestly I embraced the crazy because that was the tale I wanted to tell. Frenetic and unpredictable make for a better story. There’s a reason cat-chases-laser-light videos go viral, but snails crossing a garden do not. I enjoyed being that cat for other people’s amusement.

J.P.: What is it about the live sports experience that does it for you? Like, what gets you going at a stadium?

R.O.: My mantra is, “At every game you attend, you will see something you have never seen before.” It is 100 percent true. Even the dullest game will contain a magic/weird/funny/amazing moment.

On the whole, I love the energy of the crowd. I love wondering why they are all there on that particular night. This is especially true of fans of a bad team. The Suns won like nine home games the season I was there. Why on earth would anyone go see that?! The answer is usually: 1. That’s just what fans do, and 2. The promise of tomorrow. That armchair psychology is cool to me. I love watching their customs and traditions. The electricity that emanates from a fan base is what I live off at games where I don’t care about the teams or result. Therefore the flip-side answer to your question is: “Sometimes nothing gets me going!” There were places I went where I just couldn’t summon the will to care less about the game I was watching. Hey, it happens. So when that energy is lacking, I’ll have nothing to give either. But when it’s there, it’s magic and you can suddenly find yourself a huge St. Louis Blues or Winnipeg Jets fan. You can’t get that mojo on your couch unless it’s your team, and the ultimate is an elimination playoff game involving your own team. If you have any way to chalk up that experience, you have to do it at least once in your life. That stays with you forever.

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J.P.: Along those lines, I’m wondering how you feel about the Disney-fication of stadiums. Used to be dogs, beer, game. Now it’s 10,000 different types of food, slides, games, etc. As an old guy, I sorta hate it. As a parent, I get it. You?

R.O.: You’re right, this is soooo much more a part of venues across the country now, and I think it’s mainly for the better. And you nailed the why: kids. I don’t have, but I know that kids at a long game can be a recipe for disaster. Diversions can only help. Let Junior go see how fast he can throw a ball or let your daughter shoot a few hoops for a little while. That said, I hope parents also don’t just default to that and forget that teaching kids about the game by watching it is important too—if the kid wants to be into it! If they don’t, why are you there at all?
Look, I spend a lot of games just wandering, too. That’s my diversion. I wanna take in all the nooks and crannies and find the best seats and food and beer options. Once I’ve explored a place, I just like sitting and keeping score (if baseball) or watching maybe one particular player if it’s hoops or hockey. I don’t need bells and whistles, but I don’t mind some, especially well considered ones like Bernie Brewer’s slide. I do mind overbearing announcers goading fans to act. If the game is exciting, fans will make noise. They know how this works. STAND UP/PLEASE CLAP is an abomination against the very code of fan conduct.  I wish venues would let fans dictate the atmosphere more. That would a good thing. Also please ban YMCA at Yankee Stadium. And “Seven Nation Army.”

J.P.: You worked with Mike Lupica. I can’t stand the man. But I’ve only observed and heard stories. Am I wrong? Right? What was he like to work with?

R.O.: Believe it or not, I never met him. Never saw him. I worked with him tangentially like three times in my whole time at NYDN. That said, Mike graciously agreed to blurb “One Lucky Fan” for me as soon as I asked him. Which shocked the hell out of me since he didn’t really know me. However, I never received another answer to three follow-up emails I sent him, including attaching the digital review copy to the last one. So. Yeah. That was disappointing. Luckily, my other ask was of Sarah Spain at ESPN and she is the awesomest person ever and penned the awesomest blurb ever and I was able to give that a good ride on the back cover. She nailed the spirit of OLF in a few grafs. Not easy.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH RICH O’MALLEY:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Desmond and the Tutus, Pete Alonso, the Alf puppet, Air Pods, lamb, aluminum baseball bats, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” Mark Kriegel: I love Kriegel! And his Daily News commercials in the 90s were the best. Alonso and Alf right behind him. If you mean lamb the animal, great. The meat? No. The rest, meh.

• Five greatest writers you’ve ever worked with: Breslin tops my list. Then every member of the rewrite desk in my entire time at The News. What unsung talent they all have.

• Three things we need to know about your wife: 1. She’s wicked smart, but she married me. 2. She’s sweet, but sassy as heck. 3. I owe her everything I am, which is markedly improved by her love.

• Five foods to cure life’s ills: My grandma’s/mom’s/sister’s lasagna. Those Poke Nachos at Yard House. My wife’s cobblers and pies. The pesto anywhere in Cinque Terre. My own cocktail creations.

• Who should the Democrats run on the ticket in 2020?: I really wish I could say Amal Clooney – not kidding. Honestly, I’m gonna need to hear a lot more and see performance under pressure from all of the announced Democratic candidates before I know who I most closely align with and I think has the best chance to win. And win they must.

• Tell me a solid joke: That’d be a gas.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: No, but I commonly dream I’m watching one happen. Just arcs right out of the sky in front of me. Terrifying.

• The four athletes one should see in person are …: Greek Freak. Usain Bolt. Lukaku. Your favorite.

• How did you feel when Johnny Lozada left Menudo?: I feel like this is a trick question. [Googles] It isn’t! Ok, I’ll play along: Not nearly as bad as when New Edition kicked out Bobby Brown.

• One question you would ask Michael Sam were he here right now: May I shake your hand, sir?

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life