Getting the picture close to home

July 21, 2000|By Mike Preston

Right about now, you're choking on your cereal because you're seeing this mug for the first time. Denzel Washington, I'm not, but I'm the newest sports columnist at The Sun.

After I've covered hundreds of high school games, the Major Indoor Soccer League, one World Cup, eight NCAA Division I lacrosse championships, seven Super Bowls, two Olympics and 64 Ravens games in the past 17 years, the bosses have given me the chance to express opinions.

I know what you're thinking, that I'm just another out-of-town columnist who doesn't know Baltimore and probably never played the game.

But I'm a hometown product, born in Essex and a graduate of Towson State University. I'm at least seven inches taller than Ken Rosenthal and 100 pounds heavier than John Eisenberg. I got game. Well, I had game. When you get a little older, you lose a step or two.

Just ask Cal and Brady.

I played three sports at Kenwood High, a school known for its toughness that needs to shed its sissy nickname, Bluebirds. I started three years as an offensive tackle at Towson State and left there in 1981 thinking that sports does indeed build character.

I'm not so sure anymore. Not when one father of a 12-year-old hockey player in Massachusetts beats another father to death after a disagreement during a game. Not when the NFL has become the crime capital of the United States and major-league baseball has creeps like John Rocker.

And certainly not when several coaches strongly inquire about which high school my 13-year-old daughter will attend because she is a pretty good lacrosse goalie (checks are traceable, so please send cash in care of Denzel Washington, Baltimore Sun Sports Department, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278).

Like most fans, I have soured a little on professional sports over the years. The millions of dollars available to athletes have given them a feeling of invincibility, even legal immunity.

Cell phones, pagers and suits have replaced banners, rowdiness and blue jeans as the corporate world has given us PSINet Stadium and Coors Field.

But despite the problems, we continue to cheer partly because our own games were so simple and fun when we were young and idolized sports heroes.

I was Johnny Unitas once, throwing sideline passes to Raymond Berry. I borrowed open-field moves from Lenny Moore, even though I could never master that swivel hip. Name me a third baseman who wasn't Brooks Robinson or a right fielder who wasn't Frank.

My all-time favorite was John Mackey, the former Colts tight end and the best to ever play the position. Stronger than Kellen Winslow. Faster than Mike Ditka. And he had more big catches in big games than Ozzie Newsome.

Then, soon enough, I was creating my own special plays and memories at Kenwood. By the time I was a junior, I had grown out of my point guard size and was cut from the basketball team.

A day later, I was the heavyweight on the wrestling team. A year later, I lost, 5-2, in the county final of the heavyweight division. It was a great achievement, but the moment that will always stick out will be the pain of losing the deciding match, and the dual-meet title, to Overlea in front of a standing-room-only crowd in 1976.

I cried all night and stayed home the entire weekend. The next practice couldn't come fast enough.

But that's what sports is all about. It's about wins and losses, the euphoria of capturing the Baltimore County football high school championship as we did in 1976 or finishing 9-1 in our inaugural season in Division II in 1979 at Towson State. It's also about individual success and failure, like when I got down to the final cut at a Montreal Alouettes tryout in 1981, only to get sent home.

I hid for three days, and decided not to answer any phone calls.

But I've always tried to draw upon my own highs and lows when I've covered area teams, possibly with an insight others might not have. As a former assistant football coach at Archbishop Curley High (two wins in two years) and with the semi-professional Baltimore Eagles (two championships in two years), I've tried to draw on those experiences to capture the emotions of the Ravens on a game-winning drive or reflect the mood of the team after a devastating loss.

At the same time, I've challenged coaches like Brian Billick and Ted Marchibroda or players such as Orlando Brown and Wally Williams, because I've been in similar situations.

The approach has worked, and won't change for this column.

For instance: I don't condone Ray Lewis' involvement or the people he was hanging around with during the double murders in Atlanta after the Super Bowl. But some of the criticism about his partying too much wasn't justified. Almost any player two or three years removed from college, single and 24 would love to make nearly $400,000 per game and surround himself with pretty women in a limo.

Please, count me in.

Or how about local high school basketball star Tamir Goodman? There was an uproar because the University of Maryland reneged on its scholarship offer to him. So? It happens all the time in major college athletics: A coach has second thoughts on a player for whatever reason. It's all part of recruiting, and that's why they have Division II and Division III.

But enough said. You get the picture. This ought to be fun. I get a chance to get back into the high school scene, and re-establish professional but sometimes combative relationships with lacrosse coaches such as Loyola's Dave Cottle, Towson's Tony Seaman and Maryland's Dick Edell. I get to introduce myself to Orioles manager Mike Hargrove and continue my sparring sessions with Billick.

This should be a great gig. And if this columnist thing doesn't work out, I can always play for the Orioles. They all once had game, too.

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