Normally at this time of the year – and this summer is no exception – I cherish going home after work and fixing a little something to eat while waiting for the Texas Rangers baseball game.
Summer is the time for us community newspaper sports writers to cool our heels and take time off from the two-to-three-nights a week grind we experience during the school sports year, and of course, our load is not one-tenth of what we experience August through May.
Now don’t get me wrong – I love covering games – but after 10 months of a high school sports beat it is time to take a break.
But there was one summer almost a decade ago where not only was the time off an exception, but I “worked” almost every night from early June to the second week of August.
I was sports editor at the Graham Leader at the time, and the summer I am referring to was the summer of 2004.
Ring a bell?
That’s right. In June of 2004, the Texas Collegiate League enjoyed its first year of existence and had a franchise not only in Graham, but here in Mineral Wells as well. Other TCL teams that inaugural year included Weatherford, Granbury, Colleyville, Coppell, McKinney and Highland Park.
The Graham Roughnecks and Mineral Wells Steam were proximity rivals in that first TCL season, and in that unique summer of ‘04 I enjoyed an experience of a lifetime.
As sports editor of The Leader I was also employed as a sports broadcaster on the Graham radio station (then owned by the newspaper), and my job for the summer was broadcasting all 54 regular season games (and what would be an addition six playoff games) for the local FM radio station (which could also be heard here).
I had always wondered what it would be like to be Eric Nadel, the longtime, Hall of Fame radio broadcaster for the Texas Rangers, who gets to go on the radio every single night for six months describing the action of our local MLB boys of summer.
When I was told about the job I was excited, then terrified wondering how I would be able to make it for two-and-half months knowing I also had to put out two sports sections every week in addition to the nightly assignment of broadcasting the games.
Well, where there is a will there is a way, and I spent many hours after midnight or early in the morning doing newspaper work so I would be free the next day and night. But it was worth it, and I had a blast calling those games on the radio.
You see, it just wasn’t a thing where I showed up at 7 p.m. ready to call a game. If the team was on the road and the game was in the Metroplex, the bus left the square in “downtown” Graham at 1:30.
The coach always wanted to watch the home team in batting practice, so we boarded “the iron lung” early those afternoons only to return after midnight.
The TCL was a league where the kids stayed with host families and did not stay in hotels on the road. Therefore, if Graham had a three-game series at McKinney, it was three there-and-back bus trips three days in a row.
But the buses were equipped with TVs and the guys brought DVD movies to help pass the time. That’s another memory of the summer of ‘04, I bet I saw every sports movie that had ever been shown in a 10-week period.
But the long bus trips were also gave me a chance to really sit down and visit with the guys. Graham and all the other teams in the wooden-bat summer league had players from not only the Big 12, but from the Pac 12, ACC, SEC and from schools not in big conferences.
The guys were trying to improve their respective games, and so was I. Although I make my bread-and-butter through writing, I have to admit I really dig broadcasting live games on the radio.
And again, this gave me a chance to live the life of a baseball broadcaster, albeit in a shorter time frame – two months as opposed to six.
But like the players, I figured the 60 games (including playoffs) in 66 days would help my game, but when I look back at it I cherished just being part of the team as the highlight of the summer.
Think about it. From early June to the second week in August I spent most of my time with these 25 guys, all who had aspirations of playing Major League Baseball.
Getting to know the guys and briefly living the baseball life is an experience I will always cherish.
Some of my memories were not always positive. There was one time on a plus-100-degree day where the air conditioning went out on the bus – and in the first 15 minutes of a trip to McKinney.
I will never forget what Josh Rodriguez (we called him J-Rod) of Rice University said about an hour into the trip.
While wiping his brow of sweat that was coming off his forehead like running water, he barked, “I am playing in the Cod next year.”
The “Cod” he was referring to is the Cape Cod League in New England, the pioneer of these wooden bat league and with a summer climate more favorable that Texas.
My favorite road trip was always Mineral Wells. For two reasons: The first, because it was the closest and we got back home at a decent hour; the second because we were always fed Chicken Express tenders after the game.
Road teams in the TCL were responsible for “feeding” the visiting team, and Chicken E, a big Steam sponsor, provided the visitors a box for the bus ride home.
What was funny was that almost every time we boarded the bus on a Mineral Wells “trip” someone in the back of the bus would say “We play Chicken E. today!”
The guys really liked that chicken.
I also broadcast the TCL All-Star Game that first season because it was played in Graham.
But the big deal for me was sharing the booth for one inning with the celebrity who threw out the first pitch, Jim Morris.
You may recall that Morris was the subject of the popular Disney movie, “The Rookie.”
That is a memory that will stick with me forever.
Sixty games in 66 days was, of course, more of a grind than during the school year, but hey, it was baseball.
And good baseball at that.
There were kids from that first year of the TCL who did make the major leagues, including TCU’s Jake Arrieta, who was pitching in Baltimore before being traded earlier this week to the Cubs.
The TCL for me is now a distant memory. But what I will remember most is not the every night work and how I took advantage of an excellent opportunity to improve my broadcasting skills.
What I will remember most is the fun of being involved in a serious start-up league, the camaraderie shared by being part of a baseball team and living the life of a baseball broadcaster, albeit briefly.
I loved every second of it, even though I didn’t get a summer vacation.