November 16, 2012
This writer did not want to cover soccer in the first place
By Michael Lewis
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- I'm feeling a little frisky today, so I will let you in on a little secret:
When I was told I was going to cover a professional soccer team many, many years ago, I did not want to accept the assignment.
That's right. I wanted to turn it down.
I was less than a year out of college (Syracuse University) and an aspiring sportswriter at the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. I was covering the City-Catholic League (high schools) at the time and apparently sports editor Larry Greybill liked what he saw in me and wanted to challenge this 22-year-old writer with additional responsibilities. He decided to have me cover the Lancers.
I remember that cold winter night here up on Jan. 12, 1975 (then again, when is there not a cold winter night in Rochester?) when assistant sports editor Bill Parker called me over to his desk to give me some news, that I was the new Rochester Lancers' beat reporter. My predecessor, Jim Rickey, was being promoted to slot man and an assistant sports editor.
Parker pushed a pile of files toward me and said explained to me my additional responsibilities. "Congratulations, you're covering your first professional team," he said. Of course, I wanted to push the pile right back at home and say, "No thanks."
But since I was at the D&C for less than a year -- and still on probation -- and since I have this habit of wanting to pay my bills on time, I accepted the assignment.
So, why didn't I want to cover the Lancers?
Do you want the list numerically or alphabetically?
And do you have all day as I go through the reasons?
OK, I'll make it short.
I really didn't know that much about soccer. Even though I covered some games in college, it was still, well, a foreign sport to me. At that time, I wanted to cover the good, ole American sports such as football, basketball, baseball and hockey (yeah, I know it has Canadian roots).
Then there were the Lancers themselves. They were a headache and a half to cover -- not necessarily only what was transpiring on the field, but what was happening off of it.
Let's see, there were ticket scams, players who were illegally in the country, only a handful of American players and even some fan violence. In the first Lancers game I attended in the summer of 1974, fans invaded the field during an exhibition match at rickety Holleder Stadium.
The team had many issues; including firing coach Bill Hughes that year, the night he guided them into first place.
So you can understand how leery I was taking on the assignment.
But for some reason, I took to the team and the sport.
I got to know the human side -- the players, the coaches, the front office and the owners, and I learned about the game, the beautiful game.
Learning soccer certainly was a challenge because we did not have cable television back then. The internet was just a gleam in someone's eye (yes, it was the stone age and we barely could make our own fire) and finding any book about soccer was like discovering gold.
But somehow I learned -- while writing about the trials and tribulations and the successes and failures of the team and covering one of the most remarkable eras in American soccer history with Pele and the rise of the New York Cosmos.
Unfortunately, I had to report about the Lancers' demise in 1980 -- an ugly ownership battle that pit the Rochester Lancers=based faction against the new New York investors. It was difficult to write about because I was reporting about the demise of the team and my beat. But I kept my objectivity.
After the original Lancers went to that great soccer league in sky, I went on to cover the Rochester Flash, their successor for three seasons, and hockey. I had marvelous time writing about the Rochester Americans, who were coached by Mike Keenan (who went on to guide the New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup title in about a million years in 1994) and Joe Crozier, one of the great men and characters of the game.
The Lancers kick-started my career in soccer writing and gave me the opportunity to meet people from different countries, educated me about the world, such as the Croatian-Serbian crisis years before it made major headlines, allowed me to travel to lands that I only read about or saw on TV or in the movies.
There also were other challenges ahead -- at Westchester Gannett Newspapers, Newsday and the New York Daily News, BigAppleSoccer.com and TropiGol.com, among others.
You might have wondered by the dateline at the top of this story and why I am in Rochester. Well, on Saturday night, I will wind up kind of making news instead of reporting about it when I am inducted into the Rochester Lancers' Wall of Fame at the Lancers-Baltimore Blast indoor soccer game at the Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial (the Lancers, under owner and soccer fanatic Soccer Sam Fantuzzo, were revived as a Major Indoor Soccer League team last year). The other inductees are players Nelson Cupello, Mauro Felipe, Tito Laurini and Charlie Mitchell, and the former voice of the team on radio, Wayne Fuller.
It's an honor and humbling to be inducted, especially as a media member. Rochester will always have a piece of my heart because it was the city and newspaper that launched my career and a place where I still have so many friends.
It will be great to see some old friends from bygone days and perhaps make some new ones as well.
In fact, I found out that I had been elected in a unique way, when I was interviewed by Joe Sirianni and Andrew Battisti -- they are on the Wall election committee -- on their program, Soccer Is a Kick In The Grass on WYSL (1040 AM) when I was in Kansas City for the U.S.-Guatemala World Cup qualifying match on Oct. 16. I talked about the match and about some of the five new Lancers Wall of Fame members (well, I was told there were five inductees) as well. Then Battisti dropped the big news, saying there was a sixth inductee -- me. Needless to say I was stunned.
So, there you have it, a guy getting honored for his writing about soccer, though he did not want to write about in the first place. Sounds like an oxymoron, huh? (or perhaps a relative of one of Groucho Marx's great lines -- "I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member").
But there is a lesson to be learned here because I have enjoyed a career, seen places and met people I could not have imagined as a 22-year-old.
Almost 38 years later, I can tell you that I am quite satisfied that I did not turn down what turned into an assignment of a lifetime.