After all this time, I hope everyone hasn't written me off


July 13, 2004|By John Eisenberg

IN MY MOST recent column before this one, I wrote that I was taking a year off.

The column ran in September 2001, which was, um, almost three years ago.

Another blown call by the same guy who (full disclosure here) gave a thumbs-up to the Albert Belle signing and the Glenn Davis trade when they happened.

Not that I'm ashamed to admit that. Everyone makes mistakes.

But not everyone swings and misses when predicting the length of his own vacation.

Hopefully, I'll get a few calls right now that I'm returning to writing sports columns for The Sun, the job I held for more than 14 years before taking my (longer-than-expected) break.

In truth, I wasn't completely gone from The Sun all this time. I did take a year off, then came back in another role, writing long stories about sports issues and personalities. I've done that since September 2002.

But those stories ran under my byline rather than with a picture, and at the risk of depressing my newspaper colleagues, it was as if I had disappeared into the federal witness protection program as far as many readers were concerned.

My byline could have been published in some obscure ancient alphabet for all anyone took notice of it.

"Are you ever going to go back to writing for The Sun again?" people around town invariably asked after my column had been on hiatus long enough.

Starting in 2002, I would always explain (in a windy, Clinton-esque pseudo-filibuster) that I was writing for The Sun again, just different kinds of articles now, look for the byline, blah, blah, blah -- offering far more information about my career than any questioner would expect or need.

Some readers thought, perhaps wishfully, that I had moved or retired. A few, no doubt, wondered if I had died, or, similarly, become an editor.

Then there were the ones, my favorites, who greeted me during my absence in a way that illustrated the profound grip on the community I achieved with my years of columns.

"I really enjoy reading your column every day!" they cheerily declared.

Obviously, huge fans hanging on my every word.

I went 1,001 days without writing a column before this one.

Those who thought I never stopped probably believed Cal Ripken was still playing third base for the Orioles.

Come to think of it ... naw, never mind.

But even though I was out a long time, I find it remarkable, as I return, how little has changed.

The Orioles were going nowhere when I stopped writing columns in 2001. They're still going nowhere now that I'm starting up again.

The Ravens were trying to fix their struggling offense to match their terrific defense in 2001. Nothing has changed.

Slots and Maryland horse racing were hot issues then, as was Washington's attempt to land a National League franchise.

Sound familiar?

Is it possible to step away for a thousand days and have it feel like all you did was go out to lunch and come back?

Actually, a lot happened while I was gone. Gary Williams and the basketball Terps won a national title. Ralph Friedgen brought pride back to the football Terps. Michael Phelps kept growing. Johnny U. died.

Obviously, things do change. One look at the picture accompanying this column is evidence of that. A little less hair. A little more gray. Glasses. (Memory lapses not pictured.)

But while the columnist changes, the job does not.

The goal is always to try to be fair and honest, make your mind up on issues and write what you believe, regardless whether it makes readers angry or happy.

There are few better jobs, because people care so passionately about what you write, no matter if you're writing about Major League Baseball, high school sports or Norwegian cross-country skiing.

Coming soon in my office mail: a new batch of letters starting: "Dear %$#@!"

Perversely, I think I have missed them.

Comebacks have become commonplace in sports, with everyone from Michael Jordan to Roger Clemens to every boxer who ever threw a punch returning to ply his former trade.

I'm not shooting that high. I'm thinking more along the lines of the story about the New York sports editor who was fired, then wrote upon being rehired: "As I was saying before I was interrupted ... "

My goal is to shake the rust in the coming weeks, weigh in on what I've missed and get a few predictions right for a change. Phelps will do well in Athens. The Orioles will have a lousy year.

There. See? I think I can do this job again.

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