Have to admit, this snuck up on me. Thirty years ago this week, I moved to San Jose and began writing sports columns for the Mercury News. The first one appeared on July 6, 1984.
What? You aren't celebrating the anniversary with cake and ice cream?
It has been quite a trip between then and now -- and not merely a long, strange trip, although it did once include an interview with Jerry Garcia in the Candlestick Park dugout before a Giants' game, during which the Grateful Dead guitarist revealed exclusively that he never did play much baseball as a kid but was a pretty decent softball pitcher.
The trip has included journeys to several continents to write thousands of columns, many of which were in complete sentences and in English. During those 30 years, I did make one brief detour back to Cincinnati where I wrote a general interest column for 16 months (and had a blast doing so until thunderstorms and earthquakes intervened, but that's another story). Otherwise, every single one of my column words since the summer of 1984 has been written for the Mercury News and (lately) the Bay Area News Group. Ever since 1985, they've been archived electronically, which meant I had to thread up the microfilm to pull out this one.
Looking back over that original column, I was transported back to the nervousness and angst I felt. I was uprooting my family—which included a 2-year-old girl and a 6-month pregnant wife—and bringing all of us to a new place three time zones away from relatives and longtime friends. The Merc was in major growth mode back then. The bosses hired me to bring more attention to the sports pages and demonstrate that we could compete with the Chronicle, then the dominant sports page and newspaper in the area.
Maybe that's why my first words in San Jose sound like a kid (see above photo) who is trying way too hard to impress. When I arrived in town a week or so earlier, there was a heat wave with thick smog in the air. The big local stories were the $60 million loss that the city of San Jose had just taken in the bond market, plus a report of underground toxic plumes spreading toward our ground water. None of that had anything to do with sports. But I must have figured that I should work them into the column so that I would sound as if I were already plugged into things here.
There are other dated references in the column to NFL founder and Chicago Bears' owner George Halas (who had recently passed away) and the horse Swale (who had suddenly collapsed and died just weeks after winning the Belmont Stakes) and Love Canal (a hazardous waste disaster near Buffalo). Those references won't make much sense to today's readers. But it's still fun to read and ponder that time period, when the Raiders were still in Los Angeles and the original soccer Earthquakes were still in business.
Here's how long ago July of 1984 was: In the same day's newspaper as my first column, Rollie Fingers was saving a game for the Milwaukee Brewers against the A's and the Dodgers' Ron Cey was hitting multiple home runs to beat the Giants. Also, the local cable TV company was trying to decide whether to carry either the Braves on TBS or Cubs on WGN because there wasn't bandwidth room for both. Meanwhile, I guarantee that by the time this column appeared, I was already worried about what I'd write in my second Mercury News column.
The glorious angst continues, 30 years on. But I thought readers might get a kick out of reading Merc Column One. If not, they should feel free to move along and start ripping my current work. I won't be offended. The relationship has worked pretty well for the last three decades. Thanks to all of you for that.
Now, to the Wayback Machine:
NEW GUY IN TOWN
San Jose Mercury News, July 6, 1984
I've never been very good at introductions. Somehow, I always manage to say the wrong thing.
A few years ago, I was introduced to the late George Halas, the man who invented pro football with the Chicago Bears. He wasn't in the best of health at the time. I told him it was a thrill to meet him because he had won six or seven NFL championships before I was even born.
His health did not improve.
When I was introduced to Richie Allen, the former baseball player, I said I loved seeing him swing the bat because it was even fun to watch him strike out.
He wasn't amused.
And last month at a golf tournament when I met Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, I tried to break the ice by asking him how he liked "The Right Stuff."
He said he'd neither read the book nor seen the movie.
I hope my luck is better today. I'd like to get off on the right foot here, at least before I begin sticking both feet in my mouth. When you write your first column at a new address, you want it to be good. This column won't be as good as I'd like it to be -- it never is -- but if we're going to be spending some time together, I figure you deserve to know a few facts about me and the way I do business. That way, when I write something dumb in the future, you'll know why.
Here's the list:
1. I DID MOVE HERE FROM OHIO, BUT I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT BOWLING SHOULD BE AN OLYMPIC SPORT.
There seems to be a notion out here that everyone from the industrial Midwest spends every Wednesday night swilling beer at the local lanes. That's absurd. Back in Cincinnati, I spent Wednesday nights swilling beer at the local pro wrestling matches.
2. SO FAR, NOTHING THEY TOLD ME ABOUT NORTHERN CALIFORNIA SEEMS TO BE TRUE.
They told me the summers here were cooler than summers in the Midwest. It's been 90 degrees here every day. They told me there was no smog. Evidently, there is a severe optical illusion at work here. They told me the area was flush with financial geniuses. Then I discovered that the city of San Josejust lost $60 million. And oh, yes. They told me the Giants were awful. As soon as I showed up, the team won six straight.
3. JUST IN CASE YOU'RE ASKING, I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO RAISE $60 MILLION.
My only thought is that the city council might buy a few race horses and syndicated them. Of course, the way this town's good fortune is running, they'd probably all wind up like Swale, in glue city. The horses, I mean. Not the city council.
4. I AM NOT CYNICAL ABOUT SPORTS ALL THE TIME, ONLY WHEN I HEAR THAT MORE THAN 10 ATHLETES HAVE BEEN PICKED UP IN DRUG CHARGERS OVER ANY GIVEN 24-HOUR PERIOD.
You will find, I think, that I'm a traditionalist in many ways. I love seeing fathers and kids at the ballpark. I love seeing a young boxer pounding his way to the top. I love autumn afternoons with marching bands, and spring mornings on a golf course. At the same time, I think tennis is a stupid game, and that the Olympics are overrated, and that too many people in sports take themselves much too seriously. Yes, that includes sports columnists.
5. I DON'T HATE AL DAVIS.
This isn't conventional thinking around here, I know. But when Davis moved the Raiders to Los Angeles, he was simply operating the American way. He was putting his business ahead of anyone else's pleasure. To my way of thinking, Oakland blew the whole deal. Instead of going to court, it should have done the American thing. It should have swiped a team from someplace else. If it had, the Oakland Colts could be opening their training camp this month.
6. IT'S HARD FOR ME TO BELIEVE THAT A GUNG-HO MILLIONAIRE IN THE SILICON VALLEY HASN'T BUILT A 60,000 SEAT STADIUM HERE AND GONE LOOKING FOR A TEAM TO STEAL.
If the guy who ran Apple Computers can spend millions on a rock festival, then somebody around here can surely spend millions to lure a pro football team to Santa Clara County. The citizens here surely deserve that as much as they deserve Fleetwood Mac.
7. IT'S HARDER FOR ME TO BELIEVE THAT ANY CALIFORNIA TEAM, IN ANY SPORT, WOULD CALL ITSELF "THE EARTHQUAKES."
My best wishes go out to the local soccer franchise, but I can tell you that in chamber-of-commerce terms, their nickname does not play well in other parts of the country. And with good reason. Would a team in Houston call itself "The Humidities?" Would a team in New York call itself "The Muggers?" Would a team in Buffalo call itself "The Love Canals?"
8. SPEAKING OF TOXIC WASTE, I AM NOT SCARED OFF BY ALL THE CHEMICAL CONTAMINATION STORIES HERE.
Remember, we have toxic contamination in Ohio, too. It's called "Cleveland."
9. I PROMISE NOT TO MAKE ANY JOKES ABOUT HOT TUBS AND WINE TASTING AS LONG AS YOU DON'T MAKE FUN OF MY CINCINNATI REDS BOBBLEHEAD DOLL.
I'm wondering, though. Do they serve Chablis at pro wrestling matches here?
10. IF YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS, OPERATORS ARE ON DUTY.
This is an equal-opportunity column. I filch ideas from anybody. I don't know what a nice reader like you is doing in a column like this, but I hope you come back. Maybe we can have some fun.
In celebration of his 30 years at the newspaper, readers can be treated to the very first column Mark Purdy wrote for us at