Some of life’s adventures can be planned in advance – vacations, social gatherings, road trips with friends, etc. – while others leap out of left field with a force of a tidal wave. One such instance of the latter began with a single phone call.
At exactly 10:23 a.m. May 15 I was in the process of organizing my work day when the phone in my home office rang. When I saw the name “Fernandez Jr., B.” flash on the caller ID screen I knew good news was headed my way. That’s because for the past several years, a call from Bernard Fernandez during the month of May meant one thing – I had placed in the “Barneys,” the Boxing Writers Association of America’s annual writing competition named for legendary scribe Barney Nagler.
Since joining the BWAA in 2006 I’ve enjoyed consistent, steady progress in the contest. In 2006 and 2007 I earned honorable mentions for “column” and “investigative reporting” respectively. I was shut out in 2008 but in 2009 I broke into the top three with a third place for “investigative reporting.” The following year I experienced a quantum leap upward by capturing two second places for “news story” (breaking news) and “column.” Given the upward trajectory, a first-place showing was the next logical goal but given the deep field in terms of numbers and geography I figured that honor would require a few more years of seasoning as well as good fortune from the six-judge panel.
So imagine my shock when I heard Fernandez say, “Congratulations. You won first place for ‘news story’ and an honorable mention for ‘boxing feature under 1,750 words.’”
My memory of events beyond the words “you won first place” is hazy, for my mind simply couldn’t grasp that I had beaten out such luminaries as Bill Dwyre and Lance Pugmire of the Los Angeles Times (the latter of which won two first-place awards last year), Thesweetscience.com’s Springs Toledo, BoxingScene.com’s David Greisman, the legendary Tom Hauser, The Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Marino, Philly.com’s Don Steinberg and the New York Post’s George Willis, all of whom received honors in this category.
Imagine this: A guy from a West Virginia town of 130 people, a guy who still lives in that town, a guy who, for the most part, didn’t write about boxing for more than a decade before starting again in his 40s, a guy who rolled the dice by changing careers in mid-stream, had written a piece that was judged better than those submitted by that tremendous group of writers. It was a lot to take in, and the process humbled me.
Just a couple of days earlier I had thrown away the BWAA dinner invitation that arrived in the mail because six months ago I already had nailed down where I was going to be on Wednesday, June 6 – pulling into a hotel parking lot in Syracuse in preparation for the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s annual Induction Weekend that was to begin the following day. For the past few years I had arrived a day early so (1) I could drive to the empty Hall of Fame grounds and soak in the atmosphere; (2) I could talk with IBHOF directors Ed and Jeff Brophy while dropping off copies of “Tales of the Vault” for the gift shop; and (3) meet up with a few other early birds to shoot the breeze.
At first I intended to stick to that schedule, even after hearing Fernandez’s news. After all, Barney winners weren’t required to give a speech, the hotel and ticket prices were beyond my budgetary comfort zone, and the thought of driving in New York City again after a string of bad experiences over the years made me shudder. But as I continued to break the news to my boxing friends, the more they convinced me that attending the dinner was the right thing to do. They told me it would be a wonderful experience not only personally but professionally.
Many of the industry’s movers and shakers would be present and to meet them both as an award winner and as a representative for THE RING and CompuBox, Inc. would create a foundation of respect that could only enhance the experience for me. Also, I would get the opportunity to meet people I only knew via e-mail. Additionally, I would get to stand on stage with fellow winners Thomas Gerbasi (one of my editors when I worked at MaxBoxing.com), Fernandez (a friend of several years who broke the news to me) and Michael Rosenthal (one of my current bosses at THE RING) as well as the excellent Toledo and Ron Borges. That, in my eyes, is wonderful company.
There was one final hurdle to clear – the hotel and ticket expenses. In stepped my other boss, CompuBox president Bob Canobbio, who purchased tickets for both of us and arranged for me to stay at the nearby Radio City Apartments. He also sprung for the hotel room.
Bless him. I’ve told people for years that Canobbio was a dream to work for because not only is he the best at what he does he treats those who work for him like friends rather than drones. This was just another example of his sterling character.
As for my driving around New York City, that was a problem only I could tackle. I swore after my troubles a few years earlier that I would never – and I mean nevvvverrrr – set wheels in the Big Apple again unless absolutely necessary. This, I believe, qualified as absolutely necessary.
I prepared ardently for this task, and perhaps I went overboard. My first layer of protection was my newly-purchased TomTom GPS unit. In case that failed, I packed my old Magellan GPS device. And in case that failed, I printed out and transcribed directions for every stop on the road to Canastota.
The Boy Scouts, whose motto is “Be prepared,” have nothing on me.
With all the preparations made, all I needed to do was wait for the fateful days to arrive.
Tuesday, June 5: My first leg of the journey took me to Allentown, Pa., which is a little more than 90 miles west of New York City. The drive took nearly seven hours – much longer than I expected – but thanks to my car’s cruise control the physical rigors were minimized. The weather patterns were changeable, shifting from partly sunny skies to drizzle to mild rain and finally to overcast skies by the time I pulled into the hotel.
I only had one mild navigational incident. Once I approached Interstate 81 North, the TomTom’s directions indicated I should take the left fork toward Harrisburg while the highlighted trail pointed toward the right fork. I went with the second option and, of course, it was the wrong one. I quickly found a place to turn around and righted myself.
It appeared my hotel of choice wasn’t located in the most safe-looking area despite being located near an airport. It was situated on the corner of a teeming urban area and it took me several minutes to find the door that led to the lobby.
The main amenities were useful and comfortable enough but a few components were missing – a TV remote for one. I looked in all the usual places – atop the TV and refrigerator, the work area, the tables underneath each of the two lamps and inside every drawer – but nothing was there.
When I alerted the manager he surmised the person who occupied my room two days earlier had either stolen it or gave it to someone in another room. He then provided me with a spare, after which he asked me this question:
“Do you know how to program remotes? I’m an idiot about these things,” he confessed. “Here are the instructions, and I wish you good luck.”
Happily, they were concise and easily understood. All it took was 60 seconds of reading comprehension and a few correct button presses, and voila, I had a working remote. When I returned the instructions to the manager I explained what I did and why.
“If I can do it” I concluded, “You can, too.” Only time will tell whether that’s true or not.
After returning to the room I noticed something else was missing – a clock. Because I needed to arise at 7 a.m. to get a good jump on the trip ahead I came up with a solution. As soon as I was ready to turn in for the evening I tuned the hotel TV to the local ads channel, which happened to have a date and time display large enough for even my profoundly nearsighted eyes to ascertain. Then I turned the volume down.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I experienced one final obstacle on the road to a quiet, relaxing evening. I attempted to order in pizza but after dialing the number printed on the bottom of the TV channel guide I was told to call another outlet in the city. When I called that outlet I was instructed to call a third location. The third time was the charm.
When the food arrived there was another small snafu: Instead of the large drink I asked for I got a two-liter bottle – far more than I could consume in one sitting. I drank what I could and decided to take the rest with me the following day after storing it in the mini-fridge.
As for this day, it took a long time for me to end it. I tried to drift off to sleep, but for more than 90 minutes my mind’s hamster wheel spun and spun about the events that were to unfold the next day. I worried about the drive to New York and I imagined what the BWAA dinner would be like. I thought about the friends I’d meet and the celebrities I would encounter during the event. I ruminated about what, if anything, I needed to do when I received my award. And so on…and so on…and so on.
Finally, I commanded my brain to stop – and it stopped, at least for the next few hours.
Part II of this column will run tomorrow.
Photos / bwaa.ord & compuboxonline.com
Lee Groves, a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va., can be emailed at email@example.com. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including a first-place for News Story in 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.