I’m not sure when I stopped being nervous and excited meeting famous athletes.
I know I used to think it was pretty cool interviewing Iowa football coach Hayden Fry and basketball coach Lute Olsen while still a student reporter for the Daily Iowan.
I remember being in awe of Sandy Koufax when I met him at the Dodgers’ spring training compound in Vero Beach, Fla., in my early years with Florida Today newspaper.
And I remember feeling extremely nervous the first time I ventured into the Bears visiting lockerroom at Tampa Stadium as the Tampa Bay Bucs beat reporter, also very early in my professional career.
I recall getting teased by a player for being in there, nothing out of the ordinary in those days, and I also remember Walter Payton coming to my defense. It was 1984, the year before the Bears would win the Super Bowl, and Payton followed me outside of the tiny dressing room and invited me onto the team bus to interview whomever I wanted.
Now I was young and I might have been every so slightly naïve. But I wasn’t that young and naïve. I knew Payton was a joker and I was not going to bound up the steps and onto the Bears team bus – the BEARS, for crying out loud, my beloved hometown team – like some gullible rookie only to have some colossal embarrassment befall me.
I was going to walk very slowly onto the Bears team bus and just see what happened.
I actually talked to a few players, though I have no memory or who they were or what they said or how I got off the bus.
From then on, I was, I wouldn’t say jaded but certainly a little numb. I’m sure the first time I ever interviewed Michael Jordan, I was impressed. But I was 30 years old by then, had interviewed hundreds of athletes and coaches; many had burst my bubble in terms of my expectations for them; and I had been into too many smelly, sweaty lockerrooms under the pressure of an impending deadline to think it was all that mystical anymore.
All that said, put me within drooling distance of anyone in the entertainment industry, and I become a goofy, star struck fan.
This weekend, my mother-in-law took the girls in the family to see the play “Legally Blonde” and after we left, another friend steered us toward the stage door. I had never waited outside a stage door and just seeing the words “Stage Door” was very exciting.
I grabbed my niece Erica’s camera, and as soon as the first actor emerged, pushed her and my daughter Amanda toward him, urging them to pose. Who was I? As the others filed out, I tried some witty, nervous repartee, just to show what a regular person I thought they were and what a really cool, casual person I was.
“So, are you in a really bad mood whenever you’re off-stage?” I blurted out to the star of the play, the actress who plays Elle Woods, I meant because she was so incurably perky and energetic on-stage. But it didn’t really come out that way, I heard nervous laughter around me and the actress was kind enough to actually pretend as though she understood what I meant and I was not some psychotic stalker.
“My face does hurt from smiling so much,” she said kindly. I’m sure if I covered the entertainment industry, it would be different. I would be writing about cocaine rather than steroid addiction and I’d probably end up identifying even more with celebrities the first time I discovered up close that at 5-foot-2, I was taller than most Hollywood actors.
But I think I would enjoy writing those women’s magazine features. You know, the ones that start, “Reese Witherspoon swept into the Polo Lounge with a flurry of air kisses and apologies for being late.
“I’m so sorry,” the dynamic young actress told me exclusively as she bit into her tuna fish sandwich.
I could do that.
But I would definitely not like the part where you have to dress up to cover the Oscars, like anyone cares what reporters are wearing in the press room. Plus, I’d rather not sweat in a full-length gown, thank you very much, nor accidentally bump into Halle Berry on the way to the bathroom in her haute couture and me in my ensemble from Macy’s.
I have enough issues.
Eventually, I am sure I would become one of the gang, stop sweating, maybe upgrade my wardrobe and learn to air kiss complete strangers. I might even be able to bump into, say, a Tom Hanks, and act as if I do it all the time.
But George Clooney? Not a chance. Unless I was taller than him, of course.
Rocky Wirtz wasn’t in the room when his mother died and he didn’t need to be there when it was his father’s time. That just wasn’t him and it wasn’t Bill Wirtz either.
But it was Rocky, the eldest of Bill and Joan’s five children, who, after Bill passed away at 12:15 in the morning, got the family together and made sure all the funeral arrangements were in place. And by 2:15 a.m., they were.
It was Sept. 26, 2007. And little more than a week later, at 55 years old, W. Rockwell Wirtz was the new chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks.
It came as something of a surprise to those outside the family and the organization. Despite being an officer of the Blackhawks, Rocky’s name was never even in the media guide. And it was his younger brother Peter, the team’s vice president, who worked more closely with their father on the hockey side of the family business, who seemed most closely aligned to him.
“For whatever reason, dad and Peter chose not to [involve me more], but it didn’t bother me,” Rocky said when I interviewed him shortly after he assumed his new position. “It was what it was. I had plenty to do. I was busy enough. I’d get involved with all the businesses. I was an officer of every company we had. We all worked together and that was Peter and dad’s deal and I didn’t bother treading on it.”
Rocky didn’t need to be threatened. For starters, as head of the family’s wholesale liquor empire, his side generated the majority of its billion dollar-plus annual revenue while the Hawks continued to lose money.
“What I was trying to do was to earn as much money on the other side of the organization as I could,” Rocky said. “If I could [earn] on a pre-tax basis what the Hawks lost, that was my goal. Now I didn’t express that in great detail to dad, but that was my thinking. I was just hoping the Hawks wouldn’t get to the point where we couldn’t turn them around.”
It was weird to Rocky because in their other businesses, the wholesale side and their real estate holdings, Bill believed you had to spend money to make money, and then re-invest the money they made right back into the business, which in hockey meant players’ salaries.
“He just didn’t execute it and I don’t know why he didn’t follow through,” Rocky said.
There were other things father and son disagreed on, and Rocky was not shy in letting his father know about it.
“Dad and I would have our difference of opinion and it was always civil,” he said. “I always said, ‘Just because I’m on the same team doesn’t mean I have to always agree with you. You don’t pay me to agree with you. You can do that all by yourself.’ ”
The old man trusted him.
Rocky was the one who, as a child, went with his dad to the Hawks’ games and then out to the Pump Room after, where he would fall asleep in the booth while Bill had a few pops, then drive back home to Winnetka with him at 3 a.m.
“The school would call,” Rocky recalled with a laugh, “and they’d say, ‘We think there’s a problem with Rocky. He’s falling asleep in class. Do you think we need to have him tested?’ ”
He was nicknamed Rocky after his middle name Rockwell, the last name of his maternal grandmother. But Bill, who was involved in international boxing, told heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano that he named his first son after him.
“My mom told the story of when I was born, getting flowers from Rocky Marciano, will little boxing gloves,” Wirtz laughed. “Depending on the audience, my dad changed the story.”
Rocky was in sixth grade when his grandfather Arthur began talking about the family succession plan, which would begin with Bill, followed by his younger brother Michael and eventually to Bill’s oldest son Rocky.
“Right or wrong, my grandfather didn’t have women in the business but everyone shared equally as far as what their percentage of ownership was,” Rocky said. “But as for running the operations, the corporations, it was going to be the male descendants.
“I always just assumed I’d eventually work for Michael and not directly for dad.”
After college, his grandfather officially asked him: “Do you want to sign onto this? And then, do you want to take responsibility for the family at the passing of either Michael or dad?” Rocky recalled. “So that was a question I had to ask myself. I’ve been groomed to take over for many, many years.”
His father taught him to trust his instincts and to never be intimidated by anyone or anything. And as Rocky grew older, Bill relied on him that much more.
The two spoke at least an hour a day every business day. Rocky could finish his sentences for him. In fact, in business meetings, the two spoke in a kind of code that would leave the others in the room completely confused.
“And sometimes I’d interpret for him to other people too,” Rocky said. “Usually he liked to tell his stories and he had his own pace, so if I would cut to the chase, it would really upset him.
“I knew exactly what he was thinking. It was special. But I also knew where he wanted to go. Many times what he would do is circle a subject and touch upon it and circle around and keep touching upon it but never get to the center of that circle, and it was very disarming to people.”
Rocky also knew other things about his dad. Like the fact that he knew how to skate but hadn’t done it since his kids were little and would never tell people he had a pair of black figure skates in the basement. “It was the funniest thing,” said Rocky.
He knew that his dad had the uncanny ability to talk to the guy who swept the floor like he was the chairman of the board.
He also knew that after his father’s stroke 13 years before his death, that Bill was struck by his own mortality, that he wrote more letters to friends, planned for his death, that he changed.
He knew, even though Bill never talked about it, that his father’s real fear was of developing some type of dementia.
“Growing older was a rite of passage but losing his memory was not,” Rocky said. “My dad was a CPA and he was as sharp with the balance sheet as anyone I’ve ever seen. Tax planning, he was superb at it.
“He had an unbelievable memory with total recall. He could remember a conversation that happened 25 years ago and pick up with the last sentence that he talked about at that time.”
Rocky knew that his father could go eight deep in his game of naming actors in old movies, even in the end, even when he was doped up in the hospital. “And that’s when I realized how sharp he was, even at that point,” Rocky said.
He also knew that his father had a moment three weeks before his death, lying in his hospital bed and staring out the window, where it all hit him.
“You know, everyone should go through an experience once like this in their lifetime,” he told his son.
“Being humbled was not something he’d ever talk about,” Rocky said, “but that was really humbling to him. He realized that all those problems that were paramount to him before he had gone in the hospital, weren’t really that important.
“It’s the only thing I’m sorry about, if I have to reflect, that it took him that long to realize that. Why did he have to wait to be almost 78 to realize it? All the problems with the Hawks, all the problems with the day-to-day business, all the aggravation. It really wasn’t that important.”
They shared a birthday and in the end, they shared that.
Rocky was named chairman of his father’s team on Oct. 5, 2007, the first time in his life he would not celebrate his birthday with two cakes. And then he changed his father’s team, changed the philosophy and changed the culture by putting home games on television, making executive changes and making amends with estranged former stars.
In November of 2007, he told me that his job is to be “a steward for the family, turning the business over and having the balance sheet and the business better than when I took over.
“It was better after dad took over,” Rocky said. “And it’s going to be better after I do it.”
It already is.
And somehow you get the feeling that Bill would agree.
I am trying to embrace change.
For example, the words above were the very first ones typed on my new non-Tribune laptop. For about an hour before that, I navigated the Internet for the first time on this foreign being, tried to locate all the cool new functions and yelled at my husband.
It then took me five minutes to craft this sentence because every time I typed a word, I inadvertently breathed on something that kept defining everything and then making it disappear. So I yelled at my husband some more.
Now I am exhausted.
This is not my first new laptop. In my 26 years of sportswriting, I have had many different models beginning with a “portable” computer roughly the size of a Datsun. To send my stories to the newsroom, I would first crouch in front of the headlights of my car (I was covering high school football in Central Florida in the early 1980s, and this is what we did), frantically punching in codes and secret formulas that I usually forgot.
Then I would take the giant black, rubber couplers that came with the “Port O’ Bubble” (this is seriously what the computer was called even though it was about as portable as a console television) and try to stretch them to the nearest phone booth (we also had phone booths then).
The couplers were supposed to fit over the handset of the phone. And they did – the first time anyone used them. Every time after that, they were stretched out sufficiently as to lose the connection of the phone signal the first 47 times you tried it.
Over the next decade or so in the world of newspapers, we had a succession of Radio Shack laptops that were much more modern and much more compact – so much so that it displayed no more than three lines of type. Oh yes, and the screen was flush against the keyboard so you had to climb up above the computer, or perhaps sit on several pillows, if you hoped to actually see what you wrote. Mostly you just hoped for the best.
No matter which newspaper I was working for at the time – Florida Today, the Orlando Sentinel, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune – every other paper seemed to have better laptops than we did. They were always faster, sleeker, cooler. And just when we’d get an upgrade, everyone else did too.
There was, however, always one equalizer. Like the Wicked Witch of the West, the laptop keyboard – or any keyboard for that matter – is not built to absorb liquid. At all. Not a drip from a cup of Coke jostled by another sportswriter’s belly. Not the spray from that same cup generated by an out-of-control Shaquille O’Neal barrelling toward the press table.
And strangely, not an entire cup of beer spilled directly onto your computer from an over-zealous fan leaning over the press box at the old Chicago Stadium. This happened to me once and trust me, all the cursing in the world will not bring it – or your story – back to life. I think I heard my laptop actually moan as it died. Or maybe that was me. No, I was swearing like a sailor, so it had to be the computer.
The tech support guys said they never actually saw a mother board completely submerged in Budweiser. Amstel Light, yes, but never Bud. But this was actually a fairly frequent happening in the Stadium press box in the early days of laptops. The roar of the crowd, followed by the swearing of a sportswriter who had beer dumped on their computer. After a while, there was almost a certain charm to it.
So I tried to never get emotionally attached to my computer. If it died, I would move on, usually upgrade, adjust. Or at least I thought I was adjusting. What I didn’t realize is that for the last 10 years or so, I have had computers extremely similar. They looked pretty much the same, felt the same and all had a little button thing in the middle of the keyboard that served as the mouse.
I have recently discovered that laptops are not made with the little button things anymore. That touch pads have been in vogue for some time now. I do not like the touch pad. No, I hate the touch pad. These last 14 paragraphs have taken me about four hours to compose, mostly because of the touch pad, along with the periodic yelling at my husband.
I FEEL LIKE MY WRITING HAS BEEN ADVERSELY AFFECTED. See? I meant to write, I feel like my writing has been adversely affected, but I was so distracted by the whole touch pad thing that the caps lock key got bad vibes.
I am trying to embrace change, I really am. And as soon as I yell at my husband again, I’ll let you know how it’s going.
Television can be a scary thing for the uninitiated. The red light goes on, I play with my hair just a second too long. The camera hones in, I look at the wrong one.
I trace it back to the first time I ever appeared on TV. It was on WGN. The year was 1965. And OK, I was not the featured guest on Bozo’s Circus that day, but I had air time. And it was not pretty.
I went to the show with my mother and my sister, tickets courtesy of my Uncle Norman, who I think had some unsavory connections. My older brothers got to come home from school during lunch hour to watch as TiVo had not quite been perfected yet. I think my dad even came home. All the makings of a future Brady Bunch episode.
Considering that at age 4 I was deathly afraid of clowns in any form, the idea to go to the show was probably ill-conceived. The fact that Bozo wore your typical size-24 clown shoes and had your typical fire-engine red clown hair, did not help.
I’m told I trembled as we walked into the big top.
At home, my brothers gathered closer to the set in anticipation of the show’s big moment – choosing contestants for the Bozo Buckets with the magic arrow. The magic arrow, seen only by the television audience – hence the magic – zipped through the grandstand, landing on the lucky head of a little girl or boy. If it landed on an adult, Ringmaster Ned or Bozo or Oliver O. Oliver would yell disappointedly, “Oh, it’s a mom,” and then the magic arrow search would commence once again.
Try to imagine, if you will, two boys, ages 11 and 13, watching from home as the arrow landed on their 16-year-old sister, only to hear Bozo yell, “Oh, it’s a mom.” And then, just as that humiliation began to die down, to see the arrow settle on their younger sister, who could have come down and at least hit two buckets given that they had practiced all week, but instead burst into tears. On television.
Ringmaster Ned and Bozo and.Oliver did not have anything to say for kids bawling, other than to once more set the magic arrow in motion and move on. Needless to say, we slinked home in disgrace – after I cried through the Grand Prize March, of course.
I have been back to the WGN studios since then and I still get the shakes.
Thursday night at WTTW was considerably easier, I must say. For starters, there were no clowns. Also, I am getting much better at TV. And in the hands of an interviewer such as John Callaway, whose “Chicago Tonight” show I taped Thursday night for airing on Channel 11 Friday night, I would have had to be legally mute to fail completely.
Of course, if I had been someone with something to hide, like a politician, for example, Callaway would have eaten me for lunch and then flossed whatever remained. Callaway is to the interview what Sir Georg Solti was to conducting; what Emeril Lagasse is to the kitchen knife. And in his hands, I was butter. Or to continue this really fun game of never-ending analogies, he was the Lion King (complete with the James Earl Jones’ voice) and I was little Simba, knowing I could be crushed at any moment and yet feeling safe and secure as I tried to trot after him.
We talked about my book “Sweet Lou,” and about my website and about being fired, rather laid off, in the prime of your career. It was about this point that I tried to remember exactly what the non-disparagement clause said in my Tribune severance agreement.
As a journalist, just hearing John Callaway introduce you by name must be what it feels like for a baseball player to have Bob Costas do it. I left his set Thursday night feeling exhilarated and extremely fortunate, even without remembering a single word I had said.
It was not the first time I had been interviewed by the master. I hope it will not be the last.
The Bozo demons, I can confidently say, are nearly behind me.
Watch Melissa on WTTW-Ch. 11 Chicago — Chicago Tonight with John Callaway.
When you say things like, “I don’t understand Facebook,” you risk sounding ancient, un-hip, dumb — none of which looks good on a resume.
That said, I don’t understand Facebook.
I signed up – well, ok, my daughter signed me up – for the same reason I do a lot of things, because someone told me I should.
I should point out that this rule of thumb has not always worked well for me in the past. Once I shopped at a boutique because someone told me I should, ended up spending $1,300 and getting sued for defamation. I would explain, but not sure I want to go down that road again.
I am reasonably sure I am not the only person to make this observation about Facebook, but here goes — who’s talking to whom? And what are they talking about?
I thought I knew a little something about Facebook before I joined. I knew you had your own page. So I pictured a sort of video bulletin board with pictures of friends and family, maybe a recipe or two, memorable sayings and warm exchanges. Not a corkboard on my locker, where any stranger passing by could scrawl graffiti or — as the case may be – tell me they’re looking for mayonnaise.
Not that it can’t be interesting at times. The very first week of my Facebooking career, I found out that someone I knew had a part of their personal anatomy “propped up.” I did not need to know this about the woman. But I can’t say it wasn’t entertaining.
I can be entertaining. Not necessarily in that way because I don’t have any surgery to share. But I could talk about my friend Debbie and I going to lunch today and sitting next to a woman with no pants.
We saw the woman getting out of her car and Debbie, being from out of town and unfamiliar with the area, asked if there was a pool nearby. I said no. Debbie then asked if the temperature was indeed in the 50s and rainy and I confirmed that yes, this was true.
At this point, we could only hope that the woman, who was 60ish, was wearing a bathing suit under the button-down blouse that did not – I repeat, did not – provide enough coverage for anywhere but poolside, and even that would be up for debate.
I should also, just for the record, point out that our restaurant was indoors, had table linens, menus and located not in Berkeley but a Chicago suburb.
As luck would have it, the woman sat next to us, enabling us to take stock of the situation and make sure that before we passed further judgment, she had all of her faculties and really was half-naked. Check and check.
It also allowed us to watch the woman leave the table for the restroom, and overhear her friend remark upon her return that she had made an especially quick trip.
“I didn’t take off my bathing suit,” the woman explained.
Now, I would love to read this kind of stuff on Facebook. Allow people to offer their own interpretations. Or to simply let it slide as Debbie and I ultimately opted to do, given that we were eating lunch at the time.
But no, other than the occasional plastic surgery gossip, you never get that really good, substantial stuff.
I’ll have to try Twittering. I heard that’s fun. And someone told me I should.