Tuesday, July 02, 2013

On the Death of a Friend, 30 Years Later

Tomorrow, July 3, 2013 is the 30th anniversary of the death of a close childhood friend of mine. I originally wrote this post in 2008 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his death. It seemed appropriate to post it again this week. After I'd written it, I heard from many members of his family (including his mom), which was more moving and gratifying than I can describe. This is my little way of saying I still remember.

My next-door-neighbor was a year and a half older than I was, and we had known each other since I was a toddler. Sometimes with my wife and kids, I look at the grainy Super 8 movies my parents used to take. There we are, two preschoolers sitting in a little plastic wading pool on the patio. There he is pulling me around in my old red Radio Flyer wagon, both of us decked out in godawful early '70's attire. I think he's actually wearing white shoes and a white belt. What were our parents thinking? There we are at my seventh birthday party. There he is, about to enter high school, playing with my new puppy.

Looking at it now, a 19-month age difference isn't much, but it seemed like a lot at the time. Richie was older, seemed to know the ways of the world, and was willing to grab my hand and guide me through the maze like a big brother. He showed me where my classroom was on the first day of first grade, and did it again on the first day of middle school. He gave me my first exposure to Billy Joel and Steve Martin records (smuggled out of his older brother's bedroom). He interceded with a bullying classmate of his to leave me alone. Though it's virtually unthinkable to me now, I applied to, was accepted at, and nearly attended an all-boys Jesuit high school simply because Rich was a student there.

In St. Louis, you grow up a baseball fan. You play baseball, you watch it, you listen to it, you talk about it, and back then you collected the cards that went with it. Rich was of Lebanese and Syrian descent, so he was quite a haggler. My mom would take us to baseball card shows (hey, we were really into it), and I would watch in a combination of disbelief and envy as this 14-year-old kid would begin bartering with these grizzled baseball card dealers. "How much is the Mickey Mantle?" "Fifteen bucks." "Okay, how 'bout this? I'll give you ten for both the Mantle and the Mays." This would be followed by the dealer laughing a "you're crazy" laugh and Richie heading off undaunted to the next table.

One day he came over and told me he had something to show me. We went back over to his house, where he produced a 1954 Bowman Ted Williams card that he'd bought from some poor sap at a yard sale for about a dollar. I think the market value at the time was something like $600. He also had what appeared to be the hat first baseman Keith Hernandez was wearing when the Cardinals clinched the 1982 World Series. It's provenance was complicated, but in the on-field scrum after the victory (this was back when everyone would rush onto the field after big game like that), somebody grabbed Hernandez's cap with the number 37 written right there under the brim, and somehow (I told you he was a haggler) it ended up in Rich's possession. He also did the first Mike Shannon impression I ever heard. In St. Louis now, everybody does a Mike Shannon impression, but in the early 80's it was revolutionary.

Rich's family had a little, yappy schnauzer named Tuppins. (I have since come to assume that the name came from that Julie Andrews song in "Mary Poppins," but I never thought to ask. Come to think of it, I suddenly recall being really impressed at about five years old that Richie was able to sing the part of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" where they sing it backwards. Big time stuff for the preschool set.) He'd make the reluctant and fearful Tuppins play goalie in garage hockey games, facing a barrage of plastic pucks. Rich also had a hamster named Harbey (and no, that's not a misprint--it was Harbey with a "b". Again, I never figured out why, and never thought to ask.) By hamster standards, Harbey was virtually immortal. He lived in this huge, labyrinthine Habitrail in Richie's room, and I'd swear that hamster lived to be like eight years old.

On July 3, 1983, my childhood ended. It sounds narcisstic to put it that way, and I don't mean it to. The end of my childhood isn't the main point, and 14 is about time to start growing up anyway. But I also can't seem to separate the events of that day from how they affected me and how much everything changed. That was the day Richie died. It was a boating accident. I never got all of the details and it seemed to morbid to ask, but apparently on a family Fourth of July weekend trip at a Missouri lake, some friends of his were goofing around in a motor boat and the motor caught Rich's life jacket and pulled him under and hit him in the head.

It happens to different people at different points, but that was the day when I realized that the carefree summer vacation days of childhood are a mirage. For the first time, it truly dawned on me that death was real, that you never know what a day might hold, that some things are gravely serious, and that life is incredibly, terrifyingly fragile. For the first time, I came face to face with the reality that none of us gets out of here alive. And for the first time I came to know that dull throbbing of loss deep within the gut that lasts until you fall asleep and then hits again like a wave seconds after you wake up. Over the years, that grief has gotten less and less, of course. But if I stop and look for it, I can always find a little piece of it still there.

Richard John Kilo was 16 years old when he died. He's now been gone far longer than he was here. His parents, thankfully, are still around, and they stay in touch with my folks back in St. Louis, though they moved out of the neighborhood a few years after Richie's death. They were, and remain, a wondeful, loving, warm, inviting family. My mom told me the other day that they'd called her after watching the thing I did on C-SPAN a few weeks back and said kind things.

I remember in the horrible, agonizing days immediately following Richie's death, his mom would ask his friends--even beg them--to please never forget him. I can imagine her fear that, with her son only now being here in memory, his friends would grow up, have careers and wives and kids, and lose those memories which would seem to make Rich's short time here a little less real. I was 14 then; I'll turn 40 later this year. I guess this is just a way of saying: I won't forget. I never do.

Richard John Kilo, May 26, 1967 - July 3, 1983.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Mike Responts 1960-2012

I’d had enough. Sitting behind my microphone co-hosting the morning show on the SportsFan Radio Network in 1997, my blood was boiling as my co-host was ripping my argument to shreds. Not only didn’t he buy my position, but he strongly hinted that I was incredibly stupid for holding it in the first place. “Stupid” was his strongest indictment, and a word he hurled around frequently. Snapping, I yanked my headphones off my head, threw them down on the table, and stormed out of the radio studio. Live, on the air, in a program being carried on stations all over the country.

Only one person was ever able to make me that mad on the air. And he was also my friend. Looking back 15 years later, the two [more or less] years I did radio programs with that co-host, “The Sports Pig” Mike Responts, was the most fun I ever had in radio. On Saturday I got the unwelcome news that Mike died last week in Las Vegas at 52.

You probably shouldn’t be surprised when you hear of the death of your friend--the self-proclaimed “Sports Pig"--who often tipped the scales near the northern side of the 300’s, who referred to his own tenuous physical condition as “my retirement plan,” and who jokingly noted many times that his blueprint for the future included keeling over dead at 50. And yet I was still stunned. Though never the picture of health, Mike was like a force; an experience of life to be reckoned with.

“The Pig” was my first full-time radio partner. He was hired on at the SportsFan Radio Network in 1996 to do the morning show, and I was paired with him as his co-host. Even before Mike had arrived, my bosses Phil Hall and Charlie Barker kept saying, with what seemed to be a cross between relish and foreboding, “Wait until you meet this guy!” Mike seemed nice enough at our first meeting, though he was physically, uh...memorable...and then it came time for Program Number One. As soon as the mics were cracked open...well, all I remember thinking is, “Oh my. Oh my oh my oh my. What have I gotten myself into?”

“The Sports Pig” on air, as everyone who listened to him or knew him can attest, was hilarious, vulgar, intelligent, rebellious, infuriating, contemptuous, often-incisive, and occasionally gave vent to some of the most insane conspiracy theories I’d ever heard. My ostensible role on the program was to be “the voice of reason.” Good luck. Though his theories often sounded insane to me, there wasn’t usually much I could do to rebut them, aside from merely protesting, “That’s insane!” An early adopter of the Internet, Mike came to every show loaded for bear, having printed thick stacks of articles loaded with nuggets of info. He was TMZ before there was a TMZ, reveling particularly in the police blotter and tales of hypocrisy and malfeasance among athletes and the rich & famous. His greatest dream at the time was to get hold of the results of the Wonderlich test, the intelligence test given to college football players as part of their evaluation for the NFL. Actually having documented proof that one athlete or another was clinically stupid was, to him, the Holy Grail.

When Mike felt he’d gotten off a particularly good line on you, he’d join his little hands--which barely reached each other--across his enormous torso, lean back in his chair, and make this guttural, growling noise in the back of his throat, like the very beginning rumblings of what the kids like to call, I believe, “hocking up a loogie.” He’d rock back and forth in his chair with a look of self-satisfaction that said, “Ha! What are you going to do with that?

Like with many of his on-air sparring partners, Mike knew how to push my buttons. But he also had an enormous sweet side, and seemed genuinely horrified when it became apparent that he’d gone too far. Two or three times in our partnership, I just unloaded on him (though frankly I forget whatever the actual issues were now). When I did, Mike would apologize profusely. “You’re right. You’re right. I’m sorry. You’re right.” Like everyone in radio, he had a healthy ego, but he was also willing to take his medicine. If you called him a particularly vile name, his likely retort would be, “Hey, I can’t argue with that.” At the end of the day, he wanted to still be friends.

I realized as I’ve reminisced over the past couple of days that I probably worked more closely with Mike than with anybody in my professional life. It would make an already lengthy eulogy much, much longer if I tried to pour out all the stories about him that come to mind. Instead, a few representative ones will suffice:

  • The guy was really funny. I’ve never laughed harder on the air than I did at his monologue about then-Seattle Mariners general manager Woody Woodward (a favorite target), where he insisted, “It’s too bad that we don’t have a sense of ‘face’ like they do in Japanese culture. Because if we did, Woody Woodward would sit down in his office, pull out his letter opener, and disembowel himself all over his desk in shame.” 
  • Mike and I once shared a memorable limo ride with Pete Rose. Pete did a daily program for us at SportsFan, but he was mainly based in Florida at the time. But the whole staff gathered in Lake Tahoe to do our programs from the NBC celebrity golf tournament that takes place up there every year. For some reason, Mike and I needed to get back to Las Vegas earlier than the rest of the staff, and Pete graciously offered to give us a ride to the Reno airport—about an hour from Tahoe—in his hotel-provided limousine. For whatever reason, Mike was an object of great interest to Pete. Every few minutes during the ride, he’d just look at Mike and smile and say, “Sports Piiiiiiig!” Pete mentioned how beautiful lake Tahoe was, and how he’d like to stay there longer. “Well, Mike and I have to get back, but there’s no reason you can’t stay,” I noted. Pete pulled out his empty wallet, waved it around, and said, “Stay? Stay with what, Johnny? I ain’t got any [bleepin’] money left!” Well, the hotel did have a casino, after all.
  • For some reason, Mike was the only person in the universe who hated Arnold Palmer. He spent many, many programs arguing that Arnold Palmer, winner of 62 PGA tournaments and ten majors, was a purely mediocre golfer. 
  • If he’d been running the company that operated SFRN, it might still be around today. The geniuses in upper management became enamored of the Internet in ’96 or so, and began pushing more and more of the network’s resources into the online entity. Mike prophetically and repeatedly pleaded with anyone who would listen, voice rising in pitch, “These idiots are going to destroy the network! They’ll never be anything better than the seventeenth biggest sports website out there [even at that early date ESPN and Sportsline.com had already established dominance-JR]. But they’re already the second biggest sports radio network around. Let’s see [holding hands as if they were opposing scales], seventeenth or second? Seventeenth or second?” He was right. The entire mismanaged company—radio network, website, and corporate parent—are now all long-defunct. They squandered the second-largest sports radio network in the nation.
  • He always looked out for me and our other co-workers. He was older and more experienced in radio than the rest of us, and had a more finely-tuned sense of when the company was sticking it to us. It could get a little overactive at times, though. Once he went full-Norma Rae on us, insisting that we all tell each other exactly how much we were each getting paid because “knowledge is power.” I think he thought if we saw how paltry everyone’s compensation was, we’d rise up in some sort of overthrow. But he was also protective. On one memorable morning, I said something accidentally that you’re not supposed to say on the air. The kind of thing you can get fired for saying, and local stations can lose their licenses for saying. I honestly don’t know how it slipped out, but the next thing I know, Mike is screaming to Johnny D., our producer behind the glass, “HIT THE DUMP BUTTON! HIT THE DUMP BUTTON!” He also made sure I got the master tape of the program (all the shows were recorded) and erased the offending section, in true Nixonian style. Not that he ever let me forget it, of course. Just a few months ago in a Facebook interaction, annoyed at some mildly political comment I think I’d made, he hinted to all my Facebook friends what "the Rev. Rabe” had done that morning on the air 15 years ago. 
Every few minutes, I think of another story. Maybe I’ll eventually write them all down. I haven’t even scratched the surface.

I was often driven bonkers by him, and I also loved him. He wanted to do radio shows that were, first and foremost, entertaining. He knew provocation was entertainment, and though not nearly as well-known as many other national sports radio figures (including some of his former co-workers), I really think he was a true innovator in his approach to sports media.

Mike would occasionally email me to tell me I needed to get back into radio. I’ve not been often tempted to do that, but when those emails came, the thought of going back on the air with him sparked a tug for at least a moment. Mike Responts was sometimes infuriating, often annoying, always good-hearted, and.without doubt the most fun person I’ve ever done a radio show with.

And even more sure than that is the knowledge that he'd be absolutely disgusted by this tribute. If he were here, he'd have read halfway through this and professed a desire to barf. So there it is--a final bit of ipecac for my departed friend.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The End Of An Era

Nothing has drawn me out of hiding to post here in over a year, including even the 2011 World Series, which was the most enjoyable sports moment of my life. But today I feel the need to write something down. My one post for 2011:

I feel an ache in my gut today. I know that I shouldn’t. I know it’s silly, but there it is, gnawing at me.

For some reason, I keep recalling the scene in the classic football film “North Dallas Forty,” where a player at the end of his rope rails at the team’s duplicitous head coach. “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game."

Professional sports are a business. But they’re dressed up to look like a game. As a result, to paraphrase the late Bart Giamiatti, they’re designed to break your heart.

We fans allow ourselves to harbor the illusion that they’re not a business. We imagine a connection between us and our team. We allow ourselves the conceit that the players are out there on our behalf, fighting for us, championing our city. Deep down, we know that it’s not really true. Every year brings us more evidence that it’s not. But still we think maybe…possibly…once in a blue moon…we might find one who shows us there is something more important, more lasting. We get sentimental over a business. And as the Corleone family taught us, you can never get sentimental over business.

I wanted to think that somehow Albert Pujols and the Cardinals were exceptions to that inviolable rule. This situation seemed different; special. Albert Pujols was not just some carpetbagger. He wasn’t some guy who lived in a hotel and wore the uniform. He and his family lived in St. Louis, had taken to the city, had become woven into its DNA. They operated a charity there, did good deeds for the city, and said all the right things to sooth the Gateway City’s perpetual inferiority complex. Here was an athlete that was destined to be one of the greatest players of all time--and he understood and loved St. Louis and the history of the Cardinals. Surely, someone like that wouldn’t leave. Surely the Cardinals wouldn’t allow someone like that to leave.

But this morning it happened. The Los Angeles Angeles of Anaheim swooped in with a ten-year, $255 million offer, and the Cardinals opted not to match it. Just like that, the soul of a city, the heart of a team that had just won the World Series, the marriage between one of the game’s greatest teams and one of its greatest players, were torn apart.

What stings for me is not the fact that Albert’s bat will no longer be in the Cardinals’ lineup. His ability will be difficult to replace—but not impossible. He’ll be 32 years old next month and his production has already started the steady decline you expect to see at that age.

What stings is that the history this city, this team, and this player were going to share is now lost forever. The sentimental future that was supposed to unfold will now never be. We were supposed to see El Hombre wearing those birds on the bat when he hit home run number 500, home run number 600, hit number 3000. There was supposed to be an Albert Pujols statue out in front of Busch Stadium, next to the one of Stan Musial--the other greatest Cardinal of all time. My son was supposed to stand at that statue and tell his son that he grew up watching Albert Pujols play baseball, just as my dad and grandpa stood there and told me about Stan the Man. A retired Albert was supposed to stand next to a Hall of Fame plaque depicting him in the familiar STL cap. Fifteen years from now he was supposed to stand out there on the field before World Series games wearing his red jacket alongside Bob Gibson and Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith, the living face of the National League’s greatest franchise.

And now none of that is going to happen.

What has already been accomplished remains. Albert Pujols put up the best 11 seasons of anyone playing in my lifetime, and he did it in a Cardinal uniform. He powered the team to three pennants and two World Series championships, the last of which was the greatest sports experience of my life. He provided me and my son with some of the greatest sports memories we will ever have. I don’t have any anger toward Albert, or toward the Cardinals, for that matter. I wish Albert well, and I know the Cardinals will be fine.

But this could’ve been something different. Something historic. Something that defines a person, a team, and a city. You can’t get that back. It’s gone with the stroke of a pen. What remains is merely the business of baseball. The ordinary. Business as usual. The memory of a few moments of shared success before each side moved on to the next opportunity.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I feel heartbroken today. That’s what happens when you get sentimental about a business.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

For Whom The Ball Bounces

Just when you think it can't be done any more perfectly, just when you go and name your list of people who are improbably still alive "Fess Parker Memorial" list (after he who, after dying a few months ago, left the entire world asking the question, "Wait. Fess Parker was still alive?"), just when you make the assumption that nobody could possibly better embody the ethos of that list, something like this happens:
Mitch Miller, record executive and 'Sing Along' host, dies at 99
I'm 41, and I (to the extent I ever thought about him) assumed that Mitch Miller had probably died sometime right around when I was born. Instead, he kicked it yesterday at 99.

I hate to be so fickle, but there's no way I can stand by my previous decision in light of this. Therefore, the I Can't Believe They're Still Alive list shall henceforth be known as the Mitch Miller Memorial "I Can't Believe They're Still Alive List." Unless I find out next week that Sergeant Schultz has just died or something.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Admit It: You Thought Of Me

More and more, when some old famous person that nobody realized was still alive dies, I get people saying to me, "I thought of you when I heard."

So, c'mon, 'fess up. When you heard that Art Linkletter died yesterday, did you think of me? You know you did.

The updated Fess Parker Memorial "I Can't Believe They're Still Alive" list:
  • Doris Day
  • Harry Morgan
  • James Arness
  • Conrad Bain
  • Jack LaLanne
  • Rose Marie
  • Al Molinaro
  • Barbara Billingsley
  • Larry Storch
  • Jane Russell
  • Art Linkletter
  • Don Pardo (still working at Saturday Night Live, no less!)
  • Sid Caesar
  • Jayne Meadows
  • Charlotte Rae
  • Kirk Douglas

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Requiescat In Pace

I see that Paul Gray, bassist for the death metal band Slipknot has died.

That's too bad. He looked like a nice guy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Odds And Ends

  • Now a good couple of years into my 40's, I do not find evidence for my rapidly advancing age wanting. As I often tell people, it's as if around the age of 33 someone hit "fast-forward" on the tape player of my life. If asked when something occurred, I've now learned to fully double every time estimate that pops into my head. If I would guess something happened a year ago, it was two years ago. If I'd guess two, it was four.

    More evidence of age accrued over the weekend. I finally got around to showing my teenage kids the movie Back to the Future. I remember greatly enjoying it when it came out, but I avoided showing it to my kids when they were younger because I recalled a fair degree of profanity and a bit of suggestiveness. Anyway, early in the film, Doc Brown, as he explains to Marty that he's built a working time machine, announces that he's planning to travel 25 years into the future. And a horrific thought occurred to me: that's now. The film takes place (and was released) in 1985. That far-away, unimaginable future is now here. And Crispin Glover's still weird.
  • Something rather unusual happened to my friend and co-worker Jerry Newcombe this week. About four years ago, Jerry co-wrote a humongous, 1200-page book with Peter Lillback of Westminster Seminary called George Washington's Sacred Fire. It's a comprehensive examination of Washington's religious beliefs. Yesterday morning, that book stood at number 479,955 on Amazon’s book sales rankings. Then Glenn Beck mentioned it on his radio and TV programs and urged everyone to buy it.

    Today at Amazon, Jerry's book (as of this hour) sits at number 2.

    Of every book on Amazon.

    Apparently, that's the power of Glenn Beck. I can see now why leftists of every stripe soil their drawers over him.
  • I'm playing fantasy baseball again this year. Today, Andre Eithier, my best player, joined Asdrubal Cabrerra (broke his arm last night), Curtis Granderson (the always entertaining "groin injury"), and Jorge De La Rosa on the disabled list. Instead of dragging it out over a period of days, maybe it would be quicker and less painful if my entire team just ran out in front of a bus.

    Oh yeah, and I also have Jonathan Papelbon, who was on the mound during last night's already-legendary collapse against the Yankees. Thanks for the 54.00 ERA, big J.
UPDATE: Beck had Pete Lillback, Sacred Fire's co-author, on his TV show last night. This morning (as of 10:24am Wednesday morning) it's number one at Amazon.

UPDATE #2: The book is still Number 1 today at Amazon. But they're out of them. The books are in stock here, however, and ready for order.