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Press Box Layoff: How the Baltimore Sun Fired Me

Full disclosure: the first two times I was given stunning news about my newspaper job – in 1986 at the about-to-merge St. Petersburg Evening Independent, and in 1991 at the about-to-be-defunct National Sports Daily – I didn’t get it face-to-face either time. Also full disclosure: the latter time, I learned while in the press box at a Baltimore Orioles game, too.

Of course, I was, respectively, 21 and 26 years old back then. It’s a little different when you’re 44, when you’ve been in the business more than half your life … and when it’s your specific job, not your entire newspaper, which has just become defunct. And when the people responsible for giving you the news were a few dozen blocks away, calling you on your cell phone in the middle of a baseball game you thought you were going to write a column about for the next day’s paper.

To answer your question: yes, it felt just as bad as you imagine it would. To answer another of your questions: no, I have no real desire to visit the press box at an Orioles game any time soon. Next time, maybe I’ll be told that they’re foreclosing on my house during the seventh-inning stretch.

It’s sort of funny that even five days later, there were a lot of people in the news industry who thought it was an unconfirmed rumor: that three of the more than 40 Baltimore Sun staffers laid off on Wednesday, April 29, found out when their editors called their cell phones while they were at that fateful Orioles game. Let me confirm that definitively for everybody, because I was one of the ones who got that call, the second of the three, if my timeline is correct. A fourth got a similar call, but with the option of moving out of sports to return to a previous news reporter position. Otherwise, the list of injured bystanders was me, our other general sports columnist Rick Maese, and photographer Elizabeth Malby.

All of us had shown up at Oriole Park at Camden Yards that morning (for a 12:35 first pitch) heartbroken over a staff purge the previous afternoon and apprehensive about if, or when, another wave might come. I had seen a collection of goodbye emails from those staffers, mainly editors – including one of the best in my department, an experienced and invaluable voice in Ray Frager – that morning before I headed to the game. Other names I heard about on a phone call from a friend and former colleague while driving to the ballpark, seemingly sacred names, all of them presumably vital to the very act of putting the paper out every day, until that day at least.

The Sun contingent at the ballpark confirmed the rest of the names, including another longtime editor, George VanDaniker, whom I had just spoken to the afternoon before … to ask to leave me a parking pass for this game in my office mailbox. I had picked up the parking pass that morning, and thought that the security guard posted at the entrance to the walkway from the garage was there because of a recent spate of car break-ins. In hindsight, I probably should have been a little more attuned to the hints screaming out at me, instead of, you know, the game I had to write about later that day.

As game time approached, everybody was speculating about the next possible string of layoffs, with worst-case scenarios putting it at the end of the week. I was nervous, but a few of the others on hand were much more so, because they had come to the Sun since I had arrived and were sure they were the most vulnerable. I didn’t feel that much safer, and it was no relief whatsoever to think that they might be out in the street even if I would survive for the time being. It was impossible to think that your days there were suddenly numbered, no matter how big or small that number was.

Days? It turned out that what was numbered were our hours.

Not long before the game started, Liz left the press box and headed down to the field with all her gear, and we decided we’d talk later about what had gone on at the paper the day before. I made a couple of calls about columns I was planning for the weekend – Morgan State’s basketball coach signing a new contract and the first celebration of Negro Leagues Day at city hall on Saturday. Things got underway, and for a while, my predominant thought was how cold it was for late April, after several days in the 90s, and how a column idea wasn’t exactly jumping out at me so far.

Soon, Peter Schmuck, our columnist/blogger, told me that he had just been told to write live for the next day. That’s crazy, I said, we can’t have two columns from this game. There must be a mistake. Or some other news is breaking and I need to switch. Or my editor forgot that I told him I’d be here. Or something. Oh, it was something all right, but again, the giant hint just whizzed right over my head. Schmuck figured it was a mistake, too, and dashed off an email to tell our editor that we were both here, so let’s try to clear this up.

Not long after that, around 2 p.m., one of the other writers pulled me aside: “Maese just sent a text saying he got laid off." It was a perfectly legible sentence, but it made no sense to anyone there. It’s the middle of the game, they just had layoffs yesterday, he’s a prominent columnist … huh? It wasn’t anything to joke about, but it didn’t sound true at all. But he had, for the moment, disappeared from his seat.

I went back to my seat and saw that there was a message on my cell from the office. I hadn’t turned the ringer back up after the manager’s pre-game press conference, so I hadn’t heard it. The message: call back as soon as you get this. Good, I thought, we’ll straighten out this business of who is writing for the next day. Which, technically, is what happened. Still, apparently, I was either completely clueless or in total denial, I’m still not sure which.

It didn’t matter. I called back and got the voice mail. At 2:34 p.m. (that time-stamp is kind of stuck in my head for the time being), the office called back. I went into a hallway behind the press box and answered it with something like, “Hey, what’s up?’’ Or “What’s going on?’’ Along those lines.

My editor greeted me, paused, took a deep breath. “David, I’m sorry you have to be told this way …"

I actually doubled over. It wasn’t a sharp pain, and it wasn’t like I was about to get sick. It was more like a knot in my stomach. I know I said, “Aw, shit,’’ but I don’t know how loud I said it, apparently not loudly enough for my editor to take note of it. The rest is a little fuzzy, something about just now getting the list and the union and not wanting me to hear it from someone else and getting paid through the end of May and severance and human resources and return your possessions to us and thank you for your hard work and professionalism and blah blah blah.

Brief digression:

In October 1986, I was on a road trip to cover the Buccaneers-Chiefs game in Kansas City, and when my flight landed in Tampa the following night, the friend who picked me up at the airport was holding up a copy of the paper announcing it was going to merge with the St. Pete Times in a month or so. Back then, there were no cell phones, or at least I didn’t have one of those suitcase-sized ones. The editors knew I was traveling that day, so there was nothing else they could do.

In June 1991, I was at old Memorial Stadium, assigned to do the usual summary and notes for the game that night. I overheard two people in the press box saying what a shame it was that the National didn’t make it. I called my answering machine (again, no cell phones, or even pagers), and first heard a friend expressing the same sentiment, then an editor saying to call the office right away, the messages minutes apart. The main office was in New York, and reporters for the various editions were spread across the country. Teams of editors were working the staff phone lists as fast as they could, but no one had made it to “S’’ in time. Again, logistically, not much else could have been done. Both times, I thought I was just really unlucky to have two papers die from up under me at a young age.

For some reason, I stuck with it, moved around some more, worked my way up to columnist, then made it to the paper less than an hour up the road from where I grew up, the paper I felt I knew all about even if I didn’t see it every day, the paper I knew so many people at long before I ever started working there. A paper that got into huge trouble soon after I got there – and by “got into huge trouble,’’ I mean, “was bought by a so-called financial wizard who deserves to spend the rest of his life in jail’’ – but one I felt more attached to than any other one I’d been at.

And just like that, I was unattached, by phone, while on an assignment.

The next couple of hours were a flurry of shocked expressions and reactions, condolences, bitterness and dread, plus lots of phone calls to family members and friends whom, ironically, I didn’t want to hear the news from someone else. Rick – who is roughly the age I was when the National sank – looked as if someone had drained all the blood from his body.

The overriding theme from all concerned: “They couldn’t tell you to your face?’’

They had their reasons. Step back far enough and squint really hard and you can see them. As long as you ignore the fact that they made arrangements to get a replacement column into the paper long before they ever dialed my number. And the fact that if you go up high in the stands behind home plate, you probably can see the Sun building from Camden Yards. It’s not a plane flight away. It’s literally walking distance; Sun people with tickets had been making that walk since the ballpark opened. In fact, that day, not long after a water main had broken downtown and ground traffic to a halt, walking probably would have been faster.

Not that there is any good way to tell someone he’s been laid off, just as there is no good way to fire a manager. But there’s a way not to fire him – ask Willie Randolph. (I’m now in the market for a Willie Randolph Mets jersey to commemorate the occasion.)

Then, there is this to consider: the people ultimately responsible, for the gutting of the paper and the callous treatment of its employees, whether they were in the office at the time or not, are a plane flight away. Clearly, to them “Baltimore Sun’’ is just a line on a balance sheet. Or a bankruptcy claim, in this case. Practically speaking, none of us should even have had low expectations for how this would be handled. “No expectations’’ was probably shooting too high.

Eventually, I packed up to leave (since I now knew I didn’t have to write) and decided to send a goodbye email to the people back at the paper, and grab a couple of numbers for the editors let go earlier, Ray and George. I couldn’t log in. My email password had already been canceled.

So I gathered my things and went down the hall to where the photographers develop and send their shots from the game. Liz was in the back, on her computer, game photos on the screen, talking on her cell … to her editor. She tilted her head toward me. “I just got laid off,’’ she whispered.

“You too?’’ I replied.

David Steele is a sports columnist, formerly of the Baltimore Sun and San Francisco Chronicle. He may be reached at dcsteele@hotmail.com.

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