Thursday, March 3, 2011

Nick Charles: Lead Pipe Cinch

The first time I was ever on television, the first time they paid me to do that, something went really wrong. In 1981, the cameras used by reporters in the field were still vulnerable to the powerful radar systems at airports. Thus you can guess what happened we went out to the stadium next to LaGuardia in New York to do a story about the second chance afforded to the hapless New York Mets by the "split season" adopted by baseball in the wake of that summer's player strike.

Nearly everything we shot, including most of my first-ever interview (Mets manager Joe Torre), turned out to have radar stripes and waves over the pictures, and air traffic controller growls over the audio. That's right: it seemed like my future friend Torre was trying to land Pan Am's 2:28 from Detroit. So what was supposed to be a two-minute report written and narrated by me in the field, was instead turned into what we could salvage: thirty 'clean' seconds of Torre answering one of my questions, edited to another ten seconds of Torre answering another one of my questions. The three usable seconds or so of the "cut-away" of me listening to Torre speaking, were shown over the point at which Torre's two answers were butted together.

Nobody told the anchor of the broadcast for which I was free-lancing, CNN Sports Tonight. Nick Charles only knew there was a 40-second sound bite of Joe Torre in the middle of his story about the baseball season resuming. Out of nowhere, he saw some kid he didn't know, with a big mustache and bigger glasses, nodding (nodding just once, because all the rest of the tape of me nodding had radar sweeps over it). I watched the show that night and Nick looked like there had been some kind of technical snafu. Or perhaps some strange kid had managed to cut in to CNN's feed to get himself shown on television for three seconds. Nick Charles did not look happy.

Nick often did not look happy, on-air or off, but as I would come to quickly learn, his was a practiced dyspepsia, a studied world-weariness that had given him a gravitas that exceeded his 34 years, and had already made him a success in the Baltimore and Washington markets while most of the rest of his CNN Sports columns had come no closer to Baltimore and Washington than what they read on the backs of their baseball cards. Nick was our star and our credibility, literally the anchor that let punk kids like me and Fred Hickman and Gary Miller, and later Dan Patrick, learn our craft in front of the eyes of viewers who probably often looked at us the way Nick looked at me that first night when I suddenly showed up in the middle of his Joe Torre soundbite. Dan and I would later entertain each other at ESPN by doing impressions of Nick's favorite expressions like "lead-pipe cinch" and his gloriously written reports from The Kentucky Derby ("the powerful, lunging thighs of a champion").

When I went to work full-time for CNN out of New York about six months later, I came to know Nick, mostly second-hand ("Nick liked your piece last night. He said it didn't suck like the other ones had. But you have to remember if he didn't like you he wouldn't even bother to say the other ones sucked") and then by phone. That terrifying stare, or its phone equivalent, the pause, proved to be a small part blunt criticism ("Pizza? In our office? Seriously? You still in college when you're not doing this?") and a large part growling affection ("When I was your age I called everybody Sir. Of course when I was your age I also couldn't have written a script as good as that").

I bonded with Nick on a couple of nights when CNN sent me into Times Square to get him a newspaper. You read right. In the pre-internet days, The New York Times would print the "bulldog" edition and it would hit the streets, especially the ones nearest its own offices, between 10:00 PM and 12:30 AM. Exactly which story Nick needed to know about in 'tomorrow's Times' I don't remember (I think it had something to do with Bobby Knight) but the twenty minutes I spent in the payphone in the middle of the war zone there while I waited for it to come out, I remember perfectly, because when I called in to Atlanta to say the paper was still not on the newsstands, Nick came on and babysat me until it did. "You're from New York and you don't know Rule One? Rule One is, if you're in a phone booth in Times Square and you're actually talking to somebody, the drug addicts are far less likely to try to kill you because they're afraid you'll be able to give a description of them to the guy you're talking to."

When The Times turned out to have not run the story that night, I got back on the phone with Nick and he swore profoundly, and thanked me. And promptly sent me back in to Times Square the next night to do the whole thing over again. "We've got to stop meeting like this," he said with an evil laugh. Then, "hey...what are you wearing? Huh?"

As Joe Posnanski bluntly writes on the back page of Sports Illustrated this week, "Nick Charles will die soon." He was diagnosed with Stage 4 bladder cancer in August of '09. There have been some improvements since, but we've all known what was coming and I know a lot of us did our interviews nearly a year ago with CNN about Nick and how he influenced our careers and supported us and led us in that way that makes you not notice he was doing anything until years later and how some of his 'kids' like Dan and me moved on to compete with him from ESPN in the '90s and he never expressed anything but pride. I don't know of any of these interviews that were completed without tears. Joe tells Nick's story beautifully and simply, and I urge you to read it. I did. I will not be able to read it a second time.