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The day baseball left Oral Roberts almost speechless

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A baseball card commemorates the day Larry Bird pretty much ruined a funeral

Some baseball fans were tickled by comedian Will Ferrell’s publicity stunt Thursday, which saw him taking the field to play his own form of ball for various teams at spring training. Others were appalled, calling it disrespectful, forgetting first that A. It’s just a game and B. The season hasn’t even started yet.

Just for the record, I know of a baseball-related publicity stunt that turned into something much more disrespectful.

It was the spring of 1979 and I was a reporter for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. Back then, the Journal-Gazette made no effort to hide its status as the Democratic paper in a two-newspaper town. The competing News-Sentinel was the grumpy GOP standard bearer, to the point of practically inventing Dan Quayle.

Anyway, Birch Bayh was the popular Democratic senator and he had been that forever. Nearly as popular was his wife, Marvella, who was an active player in public affairs and Democratic causes despite lingering illnesses and injuries stemming from an auto accident and a plane crash that injured Ted Kennedy.

Mrs. Bayh was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1971 and, after recovery, became a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society. The cancer returned in 1978, and she died on April 24, 1979. She was only 46.

I was assigned to cover her funeral, though it was all the way across the state in Terre Haute. The service was in an old, large brick church on the edge of the Indiana State University campus. The press corps was large that day, at least a couple of dozen, with several TV cameras included. The church was packed. I sat in the balcony.

The eulogy was by Mrs. Bayh’s favorite preacher, Oral Roberts. My recollection was that he was about halfway into it when it happened.

From my perch, I saw that several of the reporters were leaving. One by one, the TV cameras filed out as well, quickly. There was quite a stir down below. Roberts was obviously perplexed.

As a longtime practitioner of pack journalism, I ventured outside to see what was up. One of the local reporters clued me in.

“It’s Larry Bird,” he said, excitedly.

“What about Larry Bird?” I asked.

I knew quite a bit about Larry Bird because he was one of the two biggest stars in college basketball that year. Just a month earlier, he had led the Indiana State Sycamores to a second-place finish in the NCAA championship, losing a close final game to a Michigan State team led by Magic Johnson.

“He’s playing baseball,” the local replied.

“Huh?” I replied, thinking he had said basketball.

“He’s playing baseball right now. You’d better get over there.”

Like the rest of the pack, I made my way a couple of blocks to the baseball field, where the story unfolded.

Bird, all 6-feet-8 of him, was playing first base that day for the Indiana State baseball team. He was a good baseball player, with two hits that day, but he wasn’t part of the team. It was a stunt to help build a crowd and some publicity for the Sycamore baseball squad.

There was no reason for me to stick around. The wire services would provide my paper with more than it needed to know about Bird’s baseball prowess. So I scooted back to the church.

Oral Roberts was just finishing his eulogy and sermon, a performance that surely topped Bird’s on that day. I was one of the first reporters to return to the church, and there were regular funeral-goers who wanted to know what was up. I told them. A couple were amused, at least a little, but most were upset, more upset than anybody got when Will Ferrell took the field Thursday.

Can’t say as I blame them.

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A Town Without a Newspaper Wouldn’t Be Much of a Town

The NewsThis weekend the Monterey Herald moves into new, smaller quarters along Garden Road near the airport, which means quite a few things depending on one’s perspective. For me, it means that none of the newsrooms in which I toiled over the past four decades will continue to exist except in my faulty memory.

First to go was the old Chico Enterprise-Record, aka the Enterprise-Wretched, an institution in a lovely downtown until the business, for that’s what it was, was moved closer to the freeway to make distribution easier. The old building is now a Salvation Army store. My old desk sat in what is now the women’s clothing section.

Next was the Journal-Gazette in, of all places, Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was a wonderful newspaper, locally owned, a champion of progressive values in a state that had other things on its mind. The newsroom was later moved to a space next door to a paper with opposite leanings. The circulation of both has plummeted.

Then it was back to the West and the venerable Fresno Bee. Unfortunately I missed the years in the grand old downtown building that is now an art museum. My 19 years were spent in a large box in a redevelopment zone. By the freeway, of course. The building is still there but the newsroom later moved into a much larger space for reasons that now must seem mysterious.

Like everyone in Fresno, I had always dreamt of an escape to the coast. For me, that meant the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The newspaper was downtown, where newspapers should be. The newsroom was upstairs. Because of earthquakes, the floor was a suspended affair meaning it bounced up and down whenever the largest photographer walked in the room. The Sentinel now resides in rented space in, of all places, Scotts Valley, and the newsroom has been downsized even more since the move.

And finally, the Herald. Again I missed the relatively grand old downtown building. My 13 years were spent on the fringe of Monterey, in Ryan Ranch, in a modernish building that, by the time I left, had a very leaky roof, no air conditioning and some inoperable plumbing. Surely CSU-Monterey Bay will improve things before it moves students in. The new Herald newsroom will be in the old Community TV building. I have not seen it but I’m told it is about a quarter the size of the one that produces its final scoop today.

A historic Herald photo marking Larry Parsons' final day at the paper. He's the handsome one in the back row, goatee and cap.

A historic Herald photo marking reporter Larry Parsons’ final day at the paper on Friday. He’s the handsome one in the back row, goatee and cap. People, especially those over 50, tell me all the time that they don’t like to get their news from the Internet, that they like holding a newspaper in their hands. Usually they show me what they mean by pretending to hold a newspaper. I get it. That’s the way I like it, too. But the format, the method of delivery, means less to me than the news itself, which I miss even more than I miss the old newsrooms.

The shrinkage of the industry should alarm all of us. If you worry about what the government is up to, if you want to understand your region’s issues, if you want to feel any sense of community, you must have a source of local news and information. It scares me to think about what could happen in Salinas, where the Californian could go the way of my old newsrooms.

Fortunately for the Peninsula we have the Monterey County Weekly, once the alternative paper and increasingly now a main if not the main source of information on government and politics in the area. I give it credit but not too much because I know it could do more. When I came to Monterey, the Herald news staff was at least three times as large as the Weekly’s. Today, I believe they are roughly equal. I’ve seen the ad volume in the Weekly. I suspect the budget would accommodate some real growth in staffing and enterprise.

Fortunately KSBW is a relatively strong provider of local information even though it hasn’t produced any semblance of investigative reporting since Dan Green had a full head of hair. (Check out this website for more information on the former KSBW anchor who describes herself as the station’s former investigative reporter). It does a fine job of covering community events. Those are easy to cover. Wading into some tougher issues would do the station and the community some real good.

As for the Herald, I suppose the only hope for a revival is new ownership, which certainly is a possibility if the hedge fund that holds the purse strings ever gets around to letting go. All we can do is hope. In the meantime, though, I encourage the community to support the Herald. I’m irritated, too, by the size of the Monday paper, but I continue to read it and to subscribe because I can’t imagine a city the size of Monterey, a region the size of the Peninsula, without a daily newspaper, even if it is produced in someone’s living room.

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