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On the road again

Traveling has many downsides, but a few great moments make it worth it

Posted: Thursday September 9, 2004 2:17PM; Updated: Thursday September 16, 2004 1:40PM
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ORINDA, Calif. -- As I write tonight, my grandfather's grandfather clock just struck 12:30 a.m., the solitary gong suggesting the merciful end of an ill-advised comedic bit. For me, it no doubt refers to the day's folly of dealing with the paranoid, us-against-the-world folks at Raiders HQ in nearby Oakland.

I'm covering the Raiders-Steelers game in Pittsburgh this weekend -- the opening Sunday of the NFL season, which is to say, the de facto new year in most of America -- and so made my way west to catch up with the Raiders' new defensive tackle, the irrepressibly chatty Warren Sapp.

It was a long day, the kind that steals any remaining luster from this gig and turns it into what it is during football season: a series of weekly pilgrimages, where flights become excruciatingly mundane. Navigating the U.S. feels oddly like finding my way through the New York subway system, only with more Starbucks stores and Hudson News stations and the occasional massage chair.

(And who, I ask, stops at the airport and flops down for a 20-minute massage from some meek, oily fellow in a white T-shirt and cream slacks? Apart from the sanitary concerns and the hideous wardrobe and the lack of knowledge as to the prison history of the man who'll be gripping your neck in just a sec, there's the more fundamental question: Who has the time for a massage at the airport? After five-plus years of nonstop travel, I feel that every minute spent at an airport gate waiting to board is a minute wasted. If I'm not hustling aboard at final call, I've failed myself.)

Bottom line, the travel involved with this job stinks, especially when you have to rise at 5 a.m. to make a 7 a.m. flight to Oakland, only to hail a cab in a torrential downpour, barely make the flight, and then, upon landing almost six turbulent hours later, deal with the harsh reality of Al Davis-land, where nothing -- and I mean nothing -- is ever easy.

Ultimately, I got my interview with Sapp, who after some initial grief (wouldn't be Sapp without it) was actually a warm, rich subject with whom to chat. But that's not why, even in the face of such daunting hours defying death in a giant tin bird for a day with the world's most paranoid pro sports franchise, I wouldn't trade the job for the world.

No, last night was why. As a reward for this grueling day, I got to pop in on my 92-year-old grandfather, Jack Jordan. His wife of 67(!!!) years, Mary, passed away a few weeks ago, and so I'd hoped to have this quiet time with him, to gauge his spirits and offer my own particular tonic.

Over gin martinis, he informed me he was doing ... OK (To be expected.) He had his good days and his bad, but my surprise visit clearly elated him, since it meant one less evening alone. Writing that makes me want to cry, if only because you don't know loneliness until you face a balmy summer evening alone for the first time in almost seven decades.

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So we had our drink, drove into nearby Rheem for some tasty Italian (Mondello's, if you're in the neighborhood), and then hightailed it back for the end of the Giants-Rockies and Sox-A's.

O'pa stayed awake for the end of the Giants' win, which pleased him and secretly galled me. (Are the Dodgers really going to blow their lead? Are they? Seriously? If they do, a pox on your house, Chris Ballard.) Still, I was instantly returned to the summer of 1985, when O'pa and I went to a Dodgers-Giants game at Candlestick Park, and L.A. leadoff man Steve Sax opened the game with a single up the middle, which I cheered lustily ... until O'pa was struck by a flying, mustard-soaked hot dog.

We flipped over to watch the A's mount a half-hearted comeback from an 8-0 deficit, getting to within 8-3 with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth before losing. After a brief nap, O'pa awoke to cheer the A's in their ill-fated final frame. When it was over, he smiled at me, gave me a big hug, and shuffled off to bed.

I have to rise in four hours to make my 6 a.m. flight back to NYC, then hop a Friday-morning plane to Pittsburgh, where I'll chase new Steelers tailback Duce Staley. But it should be said: After all these years, and even with a job that demands an inhuman amount of travel, the fact that it gave me the chance to watch one more perfectly turned double play with my grandfather is a precious thing indeed.

O'pa's been asleep for a while now, but I know he's excited for the coming NFL season, the dim prospects of his 49ers be damned. It's the stuff that keeps him going ... and makes nights like the one I just savored possible.

Three Thoughts, Non-Sporting Edition

1. If you have to wake up to a pre-dawn torrential downpour and fly across the country, the ol' JetBlue ain't a bad way to go. Seriously, I've never seen such good customer service in my life, from gate to gate. Yesterday morning, as I'm boarding my flight at JFK on the way to Oakland with a cereal box in hand (the 'Blue doesn't serve full meals), the gate agent -- having just made the final call for boarding -- nevertheless directed me to the hot oatmeal being served nearby, then offered up an unsolicited exit-row seat, a little slice of heaven for my 6-foot-5 frame. Later, when I asked for a coffee, I watched the helpful flight attendant actually pour the milk before the java -- the only way to make it. And then I went back and contented myself with three more hours of in-flight ESPN (hey, it sorta slipped past, but did you see that the Worldwide Leader turned 25 a few days back?) and the History Channel. It's gotta be said: 'Blue, you're my boy.

2. While I thank my man Bechtel for the support, he's dead wrong on one thing. I'm a vodka-soda man, dude. Besides being a caloric nightmare, tonic's too sweet and kills the taste of a top-shelf vodka or gin. Not that Big-Spender Bechtel knows anything about the top shelf.

3. (I lied. One sporting thought.) As of yesterday afternoon, the Raiders hadn't decided if rookie lineman Robert Gallery, the second overall pick in last April's draft, would start at left tackle, left guard, right tackle, or at all. This, folks, is what's known in NFL-speak as a bad sign.

Shameless Plug

If you've nothing else to do for the next 17 Monday afternoons/evenings, feel free to join me and my co-host, Dave Sims, on our new Westwood One national radio show, Sports Illustrated Monday Night Live. We'll do 90 minutes of pre-MNF stuff, and some of it might even be not half-bad. (After all, Dave's here.) We'll chat with players and coaches from the night's game, along with Marv & Boomer, my esteemed colleague Peter King, my other esteemed colleagues Mike Silver and Jeff Chadiha, and won't totally bore you, I swear.

Top Five Reality Shows, Legitimate Edition

With all due respect to my fellow Blogger Albert Chen's list of reality faves last Tuesday: Albert, you're insane. Boiling Points? Other than hoping one of those people haul off and deck one of the perpetrators, it's a tired concept. Punk'd? It was mildly funny the first time; far, far less so the 39th. (And do you find it as remarkable as I do that Demi Moore -- who is, if nothing else, a mother, for chrissakes -- is dating that no-talent hack?) And Survivor I'll give you, except for the Outback edition ...

When I made my own list of the top five television shows two weeks ago, I was careful not to include any reality shows. After all, you wouldn't include a Sour Apple Blow Pop on your list of best desserts.

But deep down, you do so love the taste. So here you go, the five real reality giants (with due props to Bechtel's scolding of Chen yesterday, which I elaborate on below):

1. The Real World New York (Season 1): The granddaddy of them all. "Putting seven strangers together to see what happened" was merely the birth of the genre, offering Americans a new path to their Warhol-guaranteed 900 seconds of fame and providing the casting blueprint for every reality show ever to follow: sweet, preferably Southern, ingénue; gay roommate; racially polarizing folks providing supercharged squabbles and, later, a greater appreciation for humanity; various states of undress on camera; and, of course, the inevitable post-show marketing of one's self as a brand. What was at first a modest hit proved so groundbreaking that it changed American youth's seminal network forever. Never would the "M" matter much anymore to MTV.

2. Blind Date: Yes, it's probably lived a bit too long, but three years ago, it and The Daily Show were the two lead-pipe cinches for a late-night laugh. (Sorry, Dave, but it's true.) The show's producers thankfully understood that the average American's quest for fame -- coupled with some free booze and the use of a hot tub -- would make a wonderful template for them to edit for maximum embarrassment. The mocking balloon script and disingenuous post-production did everything to remind you that here were two more people so desperate to be on television that they were willing to humiliate themselves for your viewing pleasure. No other reality dating show -- a genre unto itself -- has come close.

3. The Osbournes (Season 1): Again, look past the lame second and third (was there a third?) seasons, and remember the unholy beauty of the drug-addled, foul-mouthed and stunningly loving Ozzy Osbourne actually lording over his tastily annoying brood. Yes, the show made an unfortunate pseudo-star out of his obnoxious younger daughter Kelly; empowered his loser Sunset-Strip gadfly son Jack to do embarrassing amounts of drugs before his 18th birthday; and revealed his saintly wife Sharon to also be manipulative, domineering, petty and insufferable.

And yet, for one blessed season, they were a wonderfully typical family, with unthinkably large yet totally identifiable dysfunctions. You watched, you laughed, and (Lord have mercy) you empathized. Admit it now: It was glorious. It was compelling. It was compulsively watchable.

4. Survivor (tie, First Season/All-Stars): The first and last installments of this show deserve to be on any "best-of" list. The first was supple and strange and intoxicating enough to suggest that reality shows could work on major networks in prime time, thereby mercifully killing dozens of super-lame (and far more expensive) sitcoms and dramas, and halting the unholy spawning of countless others. It also captured our particular funkyzeit (thanks, Bruno), serving as the perfect reflection of our fame-obsessed, money-driven, do-as-little-for-as-much-as-you-can culture. (And it put some really hot women in bikinis, and one large man in nothing at all, if that happens to be your bag.) And like Real World, it provided the template for its countless copycats, from the challenges to the carnivorous paring of the group to the cookie-cutter host (seriously, the same guy hosts, like, 27 of these shows). As for the most recent season, watching "Boston" Rob Mariano consolidate power while mercilessly axing All-Star after alleged All-Star and getting he and his distressed damsel (Amber Brkich, later his fiancée) all the way to the Final Two was a poor reality-TV-obsessed man's version of The Godfather, Part II. And while I don't think the producers and CBS suits yet realize that the party's over with this concept -- after all, remember The Godfather, Part III? -- they'll look back and realize that last season would've been a great way to go.

5. Last Comic Standing (tie, Seasons 1 and 2): Like most people, I rolled my eyes when I first heard about this show, and thus actually missed the first season. (I caught it in reruns on Comedy Central prior to the second season.) Let's face it: Stand-up comedy is so 1985, all long-haired dudes wearing short-sleeved paisley shirts with thin leather ties, so tired that it gave us the last funny moments of Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. But put some angry, misanthropic fame-cravers in a house together, and you've got magic. The problem with most every reality show is that once you get past the immunity challenges and the vote-offs and the gratuitous (if blurred) nudity, the interactions of average (re: boring) Americans can be mind-numbingly soporific. But lock a bunch of angry, jealous and paranoid folks who are paid to be funny (and with a couple who actually are) in the same house, and the downtime is the best part. For my money, Season 2's bunch is hands-down better, though both seasons' casts beg the question: Why are so many working female comics so bad?

That's my time for today, kids. Surf on over every Thursday. I'll be here.

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