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John F. Kennedy Jr. died at the of 38 on July 16, 1999.
July 16, 2016
The longest work trip I ever went on was in February 2014, about eight
months after we’d moved to Georgia, when I went to New York for a week
to cover the Super Bowl and then flew straight from there to Sochi for
the Winter Olympics. That was 28 days away from home — a home in which
most of our boxes weren’t even unpacked yet — while my wife, five
months pregnant at that point — desperately tried to keep our
two-year-old occupied amidst the first Athens, Georgia snowstorm in decades. The hardest part wasn’t getting on the plane to leave. The hardest part was getting on the second plane, the one that, after a week away already, was taking me halfway around the world.
I cannot sleep on airplanes — I have no idea how anyone can sleep on airplanes — but I had an eight-hour flight from New York City to Amsterdam (before heading to Moscow and finally Sochi) after a full workday, so I was willing to give it a shot. I’d never taken a sleeping pill before, or an Ambien, or anything like that, but a friend of mine with more pharmaceutical experience than I (that’s to say, any) gave me something to take right before the flight took off. She promised it would do the trick. You’ll blink for a second, and the next blink you take, you’ll be in Holland.
My friend vastly underrated my brain’s resistance to external stimuli. I took the pill, got a little drowsy, yawned for a second and ... and that was about it. I got a little confused, I tripped on my way to the restroom once, the world seemed a little slower than usual, but other than that, you wouldn’t have noticed much different. I essentially stared at a book I couldn’t wrap my mind around for about eight hours and got off the plane. So, all good. This mystery pill didn’t do shit. Except! Except for the oddity that, when I stepped out onto the terminal, Joe Buck was there waiting for me.
Joe Buck was very concerned about me. “I am very concerned about you, Will,” Joe Buck said to me, Will.
After I slapped myself a couple of times, Joe was still there. Now, I don’t know Joe Buck well. He works in sports, and I work in sports, and he has a St. Louis connection, and I have a St. Louis connection. When I see him at the World Series, we have a few minutes of friendly conversation. He graciously came on the Culture Caucus podcast with John Heilemann once — he was this close to saying “All Lives Matter,” I swear to God, just listen — and that podcast is still the longest conversation we’d ever had. (He’s actually friends with Daulerio, if you can believe that.) So I was pretty sure I was hallucinating this conversation. What was in the pill my friend gave me? Was I still in my seat on the plane? Had we even taken off from New York?
My eyes began to focus. Joe Buck was still there. In Amsterdam. Looking at me like a worried grandmother. “I can’t believe you guys are really heading out there. It’s legitimately brave,” he said, grabbing my arm gently. “Just be careful out there, OK? Don’t take any chances.” Buck, as I later learned, was about to go on a trip with his then-girlfriend, now-wife Michelle Beisner, who happened to be friends with Lindsay Jones, the outstanding USA Today NFL reporter with whom I was traveling to Sochi. They had been on our flight, and Michelle was waiting for Lindsay; I was as surprising to Buck as I was to him. “I didn’t know you were going out there,” he said to me. “You be strong, OK? Just be careful.”
It is forgotten now, but in February 2014, if you were an American headed to Sochi, you were generally thought to be putting your life in serious jeopardy. Tons of athlete family members opted not to go. Congressman Peter King called it “the most dangerous Olympics in history.” The Secretary of the Department of Defense went on “Meet the Press” and said, “I wouldn’t let my family go, that much I’m sure of.” Remember the Black Widows, the supposed gang of suicide bomber women out to embarrass Vladimir Putin by killing as many Westerners as possible? We weren’t sure what was going to happen to us once we got there. But whatever it was, it was gonna kill us. (My first piece upon landing in Sochi, I believe, captures this feeling well.) It was certainly not the most comfortable environment for a pregnant wife to have her husband prowling around for a month.
As it turned out, the most dangerous thing in Sochi was the half-finished amusement park. Vladimir Putin may have his problems, but “lack of strong-armed, beef-necked security forces” are not one of them. It all ended up fine. Because it ended up fine, thus, no one remembers how terrified everyone was. Trust me: Everyone was terrified. I’ll never forget that look Joe Buck gave me. It was a look of concern, sure, but it was more a look of pity. It was the look of someone who is actively wondering, “am I ever going to see this person again?” I got that look a lot that January.
Because I have not structured my life in a way where I come across many life-threatening situations, before Sochi, I’d never seen that look before. And I haven’t seen it since ... until the last month. All I have to do to get that look is to tell them what I’m doing next week.
Tomorrow, Sunday, July 17, I am heading to Cleveland to cover the Republican National Convention for Bloomberg Politics. It has been a lifelong goal of mine to cover a Presidential campaign, to go to a convention (I did cover the DNC in 2000 in Los Angeles, but not very well and not very seriously), to write about major events in American history, to chronicle the shit that matters. I imagined it ennobling, a serious pursuit, a way to challenge myself. Instead I have recapped debates in which candidates debated penis size, logged hours researching the political leanings of Antonio Sabato Jr. and watching videos of Tim Tebow in a muscle shirt denying that he would be a featured speaker discussing the serious issues of the day. And not just that: The next event I would cover that my friends and family would be concerned about would not be off in some exotic, politically unstable land. It would be a political convention. In Cleveland.
Two years ago, it felt like the most dangerous place in the world was the Russian forests by the Caucasas Mountains. Now it feels like it is here. This does not strike me as progress. Somebody let Joe Buck know I’m OK.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. (This is an attempt to have an objective look at the value of my work in a way that I suspect will be difficult to sustain.)
1. Back Back and GONE: On Berman and the HR Derby, Sports On Earth. Sort of strange to be the head of some sort of Chris Berman revisionism, but this line sums up this piece pretty well: “As time goes on, and you see someone like Stephen A. Smith — a braying cynic and operator who seems to have no natural enthusiasm for anything other than himself — taking over every aspect of ESPN’s programming, an argument could be made that the dopey, oafish, sweaty exuberance of Berman perhaps grows a bit in one’s affection. That’s to say: It is more fun to hear someone be excited to see an incredible physical achievement by a mammoth talent like Stanton than it is to hear someone Embrace Debate by yelling about how Todd Frazier choked.” (Please read the whole piece anyway.)
2. Cafe Society: Go West, Young Neurotic, The New Republic. This is the 46th movie Woody Allen has directed. 46! I’m just happy and lucky he’s making movies, even when they’re not that great (like this one).
3. 100 Predictions for the Second-Half of the MLB Season, Sports On Earth. What you lack in quality, make up for in quantity.
4. The MLB All-Star Game is Baseball’s Best Self, Sports On Earth. This was the first time I had been to San Diego. Every major event should take place in San Diego. Why are we all not there?
5. Should the MLB All-Star Game Still Count? Maybe Not, Sports On Earth. This wasn’t a bad deadline piece, but I’m pretty sure I’ve made this exact point about 20 times now.
6. Which MLB Teams Have the Most Riding on 2016? Sports On Earth. Travel day piece. Like a getaway day in baseball; sometimes you use the backups and get the game overwith quick so you can rest up before the next series.
7. Our MLB Hat Tournament Has Reached the Final Four, Sports On Earth. As you can tell, we probably just gonna do one of these into perpetuity. Why not? They take like five minutes.
As I say every week: If you are the sort to subscribe to a weekly newsletter, I would have to think it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to subscribe to one of the four (!) podcasts I do. Here they are:
The Will Leitch Experience, with three this week: Alyson Footer, previewing the second half with Mike Petriello and Anthony Castrovince, and my brief appearance on Walk It Off, a fun MLB.com show.
Grierson & Leitch, live and in person, talking with Grierson from his home about “The BFJ,” “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Face/Off,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “Gymkata.”
Culture Caucus, taping a new one from Cleveland this week!
Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, no new episode. Returning in August.
Also, I was a guest on a very fun episode of Jonah Keri’s podcast, from San Diego. And I spoke at the Deadspin Awards on Thursday. Everyone on that staff is so smart, it’s a little terrifying.
Have a great weekend, everyone. See you in Cleveland.