Chapter 8: Catching a break with John Steadman at The News American

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(Originally published as a prelude to “Free The Birds” in Sept. 2006, this is Part 8 of a 19 Chapter Series on How Baseball and the Orioles berthed WNST.net. This is one of my favorite chapters of the book because this is when I started dreaming of making a career in journalism as a 15-year old kid and committing my life to reporting about Baltimore sports.)

It’d be nice to say that having the last name “Aparicio” would’ve opened some doors for me in the sports media business over the past 22 years.

There aren’t a whole lot of names in the world that are so unique in our culture that there’s only been one really famous person who’s ever had it.

If my name would have been Smith or Jones, things might have been different, who knows?

But clearly, APARICIO is synonymous with one thing: BASEBALL!

And the truth in the real world is this: no one hires incompetent people based on their last name. Sure, it’s nice to have a door opened if your last name is Buck or Albert or Carey, but if you stink at doing your job, it’ll be the only job you’ll ever get.

Most of those “prodigy” guys are VERY, VERY good at what they do and the bar was set so high by their fathers that it’s hard to achieve anything that surpasses what their last name already represents.

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I know because the reason I went into this radio business was because of an invitation from Kenny Albert — son of the great Marv Albert — who I knew from covering the Baltimore Skipjacks of the American Hockey League in 1990 and 1991 for The Evening Sun.

The first time I met Kenny was at the NHL All-Star Game in Pittsburgh in 1989. He doesn’t remember that league party at a downtown hotel, but I do. We were both born in 1968, both absolutely loved sports but we had completely different paths to finding each other.

I was just an East Baltimore kid who was a fan of sports — a major sports fan whose Pop would run around with me on MTA buses to go to games downtown at the Civic Center and out on 33rd Street.

Kenny Albert was the son of one of the most famous broadcasters in sports. Marv Albert had taken Kenny to games almost since berth. Kenny had been not only to most major sporting events in New York — his Dad was the voice of the Rangers AND the Knicks — but his Dad also did NBA playoff games, NFL games and the MLB Game of the Week each Saturday on NBC.

In the broadcasting business, unless your name was Cosell or Musberger, you had NOTHING on Marv Albert.

Kenny came to Baltimore to cut his teeth with Skipjacks in public relations and by doing the ‘Jacks games on WITH-AM 1230.

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Because we had so much in common — we LOVED hockey and really because the ‘Jacks didn’t have much of anybody around in general in the way of media — Kenny and I got to know each other. He thought it would be a great idea for me to sit in the booth with him and do color commentary since I knew so much about the team and about hockey and hockey history in Baltimore. Knowing the Skipjacks was the main part of my job, as I saw it, and it was fun playing “radio guy” during the games, even though there couldn’t have been more than 100 people listening.

Kenny was invited by the “poobahs” at WITH to start a daily “New York-style” sports radio show before the games on weeknights that winter. Because of Skipjacks travel and other commitments, Kenny needed a sidekick and offered the chance to Jerry Coleman (the former 98 Rock sports guy) and me. At the time, WBAL was doing Orioles baseball — it was the offseason between Memorial Stadium and Camden Yards, so the buzz about baseball in Baltimore was palpable — and had started a pre-game afternoon talk show at 6 with Jeff Rimer (a show called “Sportsline”), who coincidentally knew as much hockey as Kenny, but less about Baltimore baseball than me.

The WITH show would begin at 5 — an hour jumpstart on WBAL — and would go until 7, when either the Skipjacks coverage would begin or we would just go home and the little radio station would revert back to playing Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. It was a complete and total big band radio station, except when we were on the air screaming about the Orioles!

The first time I ever did radio alone was in February of 1992, when Kenny left me to fly solo with his father, who was visiting and wanted to sit in with his son for a radio hockey broadcast.

After 30 minutes of interviewing him — and with a full hour left to go before I threw to Kenny for the Skipjacks’ game — Marv Albert got up during a break, shook my hand and attempted to leave for the then-Baltimore Arena to be with his son.

I absolutely BEGGED him not to leave me in that studio because I really and truly didn’t know what I was doing. He patted me on the back, told me I’d be just fine and walked out the door, laughing at me.

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I immediately rushed to the phone and called four of my beer buddies and told them to call at 15-minute intervals so I wouldn’t have to talk to myself. My first solo hour of sports radio on that cold February night was the longest hour of my life. Marv Albert threw me off the deck of the boat and told me to swim for the shore — and I suppose I did.

But, man, was his kid Kenny Albert GOOD on the radio, even at 23 in late 1991.

And 15 years later, Kenny is now one of the leading men of Fox Sports — doing EXACTLY what his father did before him and taught him to do. He is the voice of the NHL Rangers (his first love, through and through) and does MLB and NFL for the network each week. He has reached, if not surpassed, what his Dad has accomplished in sports broadcasting.

In my case, what could I possibly do that’s any greater than what my cousin had achieved by being in the baseball Hall of Fame?

I can talk my ass off, but I’m never gonna play shortstop for the Orioles, let alone do it at a Hall of Fame level!

For me, getting a job (and for the record, I’ve only really had about four real jobs in my life) was never about my last name. But my Pop always wanted me to keep the last name Aparicio — and that wasn’t his last name — because he thought at some point, it would allow me to “catch a break,” in his words.

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My first “break” in the media was at The News American in February 1984.

Not really even at “The News Post” (which is what my 87-year old mother still calls it to THIS DAY!), but at SportsF1rst, which was a sister publication — a daily, tabloid local Baltimore newspaper that was strictly dedicated to sports. It was usually 64 pages every day, with about the last six chock full of news, stock quotes and weather. The other 58 pages were ALL SPORTS, and most of it was local stuff!

It was a “test run” thing for the company, a prototype for other markets if it worked.
It began in September 1983 with the Orioles about to win the World Series and when Baltimore was a two-sport town — three if you consider the MISL Baltimore Blast a big-league team, and at that point with sellouts of more than 12,000 per night at the Civic Center, they were about as big league as you could get. But SportsF1rst folded during the anniversary week of its first year, in September 1984 with the Colts gone for good and the Orioles’ pennant hopes for 1984 long-since vanquished by the runaway Detroit Tigers, who began that season with a smoldering 35-5 run and never looked back.

That was also the week of my son’s birth — September 22, 1984. I was three weeks shy of my 16th birthday. And someone I didn’t even know came up to me in the newsroom and told me that the paper wouldn’t be coming out tomorrow.

Somehow, someway — two weeks into my senior year at Dundalk High School — they actually HIRED me instead of firing me! I had been an unpaid “intern” for the previous eight months. Now they were offering me $3.33 per hour “under the table” to answer phones, run for coffee and do extreme on-the-job training.

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There were two things they NEVER needed to train me on: knowing sports, and hustle!
But my phone skills — let’s just say there was a LOT of Dundalk in me, ok? — and my nonexistent typing skills weren’t in my favor. But I caught on quickly because being around sports and working in sports was important to me.

What could possibly be better than being paid to watch sports and put out the newspaper that I was going to read the next day, anyway?

Getting my “foot in the door” was actually a complete fluke, really.

I was in the final year at Holabird Junior High School in 1982 and we had a substitute teacher named Marty Bading, who was actually a parent of a classmate of mine. He worked in the pressroom at The News American. He was one of those “old school” guys who put the hot metal type on in the old days, and by then, was just doing page mockups and pre-production stuff on the computer. They called it the “composing room.”He was a cool guy and he always took a shine to me and told me that he worked with the great John Steadman, a named was revered in my home on Bank Street.

Nasty and John Steadman March 1998
Nasty and John Steadman March 1998

If John Steadman wrote it in “The News Post,” it was as good as Sunday gospel to my Pop. To my Pop, Steadman WAS the HOLY SPIRIT!

Mr. Bading (that’s what I called him) was looking over my shoulder on the day the Dundalk High School 10th-grade signup sheet was being passed around for “elective” classes once we got to the big school. I had circled “JOURNALISM” on my form for two reasons: 1. I always liked newspapers and read voraciously (I actually used to read the sports page to the first grade class every morning when I was in kindergarten…true story!) 2. Richie Cunningham was a “journalist” on the TV show Happy Days, and I was a religious watcher before that crazy shark jump! (I later had both Ron Howard and Donnie Most on my early “Sports Forum” shows when I got into radio in the mid-1990’s)

Mr. Bading always liked to remind me that he worked at the newspaper and when he saw that I circled journalism, he promised that he’d “get me a job with John Steadman one day!”

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So, what are the chances, right?

Well, one day in January 1983, right around the time I found out my girlfriend was pregnant, the phone rang in our kitchen and it was Mr. Bading. It was completely from out of the blue — that call. It had been at least eight months since I filled out that little blue form and circled “JOURNALISM.”

He said that he was going to let me talk with Tom Robinson, who was going to hire me to work at the newspaper. He literally handed the phone to him and five minutes later I had an appointment or a “job interview.”

Two weeks later I was a 15-year old, unpaid Dundalk High intern with a pregnant girlfriend taking the No. 23 bus to Fayette and Baltimore Streets every Tuesday after school to work for four hours per night in the sports department, which was actually a revamped version of the old “News Post” cafeteria. It is currently an empty parking lot that sits between the Renaissance Hotel and The Examiner building between Lombard and Pratt Streets. We had an outstanding view of Pratt Street and the World Trade Center from our slum (and it was an ABSOLUTE PIT) on the 3rd floor.

I did that every week and sometimes twice a week when they really needed me, until the Summer of 1984.

It was an amazing gig, to say the least. I got to work around and with “real” sportswriters like Bernie Miklasz and Jeff Gordon (who’ve gone on to basically own St. Louis for the past 20 years at The Post-Distpatch), John Hawkins (who was on the Blast beat then and has made quite a name for himself in the golf business), Barry Levine (who has appeared many times on Oprah as a tabloid “Star” journalist), cartoonist Mike Ricigliano (who is still in Baltimore almost 25 years later, is one of my dearest friends and whose children actually nicknamed me “Nasty” in the late 1980s during a baby-sitting fiasco when I sent them to bed early…instead of “Uncle” Nestor, I became “Nasty” Nestor), and of course, the great John Steadman.

But I wasn’t getting paid! And I had a pregnant girlfriend!

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When the Los Angeles Olympics came, in the Summer of 1984, SportsF1rst needed all the help it could get and I was the cheapest labor possible!

I worked every night, did the Harborplace food run (cheese bread was a staple of the sportswriter diet on the copy editor’s desk as was an occasional post-edition Burke’s onion ring celebration) and caught my big break one night when local swimmer Theresa Andrews won a gold medal in L.A.

It was my job to get on the phone with her local coaches and family and write a small “family reaction” story. It not only appeared in SportsF1rst the next morning, it actually made the regular editions of The News American as well. It was my first byline, and you can only imagine how many editions of that paper my Pop ran out to Eastpoint Mall and bought.

He kept a copy in his wallet, one on the wall and put a few away for safekeeping, which I still have!

He was so unbelievably proud that his boy was writing next to the great John Steadman!

Steadman
Steadman

In September 1984, once my son Barry was born — and you can only imagine the pariah I was around the high school and the neighborhood with a baby boy during my senior year — and I somehow, someway, survived the purge of SportsF1rst people.

I was on my way in the sports media world.

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I did a half-day “work/study” program my senior year in 1985 — I signed up when my girlfriend was pregnant because I knew I’d need a job — and was easily breaking a bunch of labor laws working 30 to 50 hours per week (my school day ended at noon) at $3.33 per hour. The minimum wage then was $3.35 an hour.

I’ve only had two other jobs in my whole life and they were both during that period in 1984 when my girlfriend was pregnant: I worked at Sound Waves at Eastpoint Mall for about two months and I worked in a medical office at the old City Hospital for a skin doctor who was doing research on a rare and horrible disease called “mycosis funguides.”

THAT was the WORST job ever, and it steeled my resolve to never have a crappy job again. I don’t think I lasted three weeks there. Nice work for someone, but it definitely wasn’t me!

A few months into my senior year, they actually bumped my pay to a flat “legal” $3.50 per hour and that silly 17 cents made all the difference to me. It made me feel “legitimate” in some bizarre way, and some of my friends were “only” making $3.35.

By the end of 1985, when it became very clear that The News American wasn’t going to survive, most of the intelligent sportswriters (is that an oxymoron?) had found greener pastures elsewhere, many up on Calvert Street at The Baltimore Sun.

One of the guys who had swapped newspapers was Bob Nusgart, who was our assistant sports editor and my boss at The News American and who had been at The Evening Sun for about a year. He called me late one night and said there might be an opening for an editorial assistant (we actually called them “agate” clerks…agate as in small type, as in stats for the then-Scoreboard page in the sports section).

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On Jan. 6, 1986, Executive Sports Editor Jack Gibbons hired me and I began my overnight shift working for The Evening Sun and it was one of the happiest times of my life.

I was making a decent living (I bought my first house on my 18th birthday on Kane Street, right by the Joseph Lee Fields I played Little League on as a kid) and I was 17 (so young, in fact, that my Pop had to sign a parental permission slip so I could join the Baltimore-Washington Newspaper Guild, which was the shop union…and yes, I DID walk the picket line in 1987 during a nasty two-week strike).

And, now, I was working at a “big-time” newspaper.
The place was so much cleaner and more efficient and more professional than The News American. People also weren’t desperately trying to keep their jobs or send out resumes, especially with the union situation. Basically, it was a very “lazy” place and people were a lot more “prim and proper” than what I was used to down the street. People at The News American were hungry. People at The Sun were sort of “fat,” and I don’t mean physically, I just mean “comfortable.”

I wasn’t used to that.

But that was during the day.

On the overnight shift in the sports department — which was the only shift I ever worked there — it was a cool place, a very laid-back place with only a few workers in the newsroom in the middle of the night.

During my final months at The News American, somehow the Entertainment Editor Scott Lebar befriended me in the newsroom — I was everyone’s pet/kid/prodigy, probably because I had all of the “rough edges” that a short, cocky kid from Dundalk would have. And I also outworked the interns who were there from college, because they usually showed up late, stoned, hung over or were pretty much lazy by definition.

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Imagine ME, being 15 and half the size I am now with twice the opinion of myself, with a pregnant girlfriend and every rough edge Dundalk would offer, running through a professional environment at a news desk for a major metropolitan newspaper and having guys like John Steadman have my back.

It must’ve been a scream!

One day, Lebar yelled across the newsroom for me. “Hey kid,” he said. “A guy named Steven Tyler from Aerosmith is calling here in about a half an hour. You like rock music, right? Do you know anything about them and can you put some questions together?”

Turned out that it was Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton who called, and I impressed Scott so much that he just let me DO the interview. I got a byline with one of my favorite bands (I had purchased “Toys In the Attic” at the Harmony Hut at Eastpoint Mall on 8 TRACK for godssake in 1976!), some backstage passes and great seats for the concert at the Civic Center (prior to that I had ANOTHER life routinely camping out overnight for tickets to big shows like Journey, Rush, U2, Def Leppard and Styx at the Hecht Company all the time with my buddies and had to pay full price for seats that I got for free as a music critic) and I got paid a whopping $25 for my efforts!

I WAS STEALING MONEY, man! I had just turned 16 and was in my senior year of high school and, suddenly, I was hanging out backstage with the likes of Kiss, REO Speedwagon, Hall and Oates and, my all-time favorite band, Rush (and bass player Geddy Lee, who I ABSOLUTELY IDOLIZED, not only was an off-the-charts baseball fan, but has become a friend of mine over the years). By this point, my “rough-around-the-edges” Dundalk parents were a disaster for me — but such is the life of any adolescent, right?

I mean, who wants to hang out with their parents when they’re 16, right?

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I usually did these interviews from my parent’s home, which is where I lived with my girlfriend and infant son.

So, when the great Geddy Lee — and lemme say this: there was NO BASEBALL PLAYER, ATHLETE OR SPORTSFIGURE ALIVE in 1985 who compared with Geddy Lee! — called to chat with me, you can only imagine the silence I wanted in the background.

My parents — Dundalk through and through — just didn’t get it.

The dogs barking, the birds howling, the television blaring, the neighbors yelling (and so many families lived within FEET of each other)  — it was just the most unprofessional stuff I’ve ever done and when I REALLY want to embarrass myself (and I have not listened to them at ALL during my radio career), I’ll bring in those interviews and play them on WNST one day.

I have EVERY ONE of them cataloged on little mini-tape cassettes and I probably did about 300 interviews in my eight years of interviewing musicians at the two papers!

(Here’s stupid story that I’ve never told anyone, not even my wife or son: Scott Lebar liked my rock music stuff so much that he actually posted a job and hired a “real” rock music critic named Steve Hedgepeth to write all of the “marquee” stuff. I put together this crazy resume and was so PISSED that he gave that job to someone else. I was 16! But that’s just the way I thought back then, that I was the best guy for the job! I was DEVASTATED, and I mean CRUSHED, when that beat was taken away from me and when the other guy was interviewing Madonna and Bryan Adams and Duran Duran instead of me!)

So, all of that was at The News American in 1985. When I started at The Evening Sun in early 1986, of course I attempted to befriend the Features Editor there to do the same thing for him and made it clear that I work cheap!

His name was Ed Hewitt, and despite being a tad bit curmudgeonly, I tried pitching him on doing similar work at the staid and stodgy p.m. newspaper. The ONLY thing we had in common was, of course, baseball — he absolutely LOVED the Los Angeles Dodgers! Wore a Dodgers’ cap and bled Dodger blue!

Even though he wasn’t enamored with the crazy, young, loud guy and probably couldn’t name a band that formed after the Rolling Stones, he agreed to let me interview rock stars and review concerts from all of the local venues — from Merriweather Post to the Capital Centre to Max’s On Broadway, and Hammerjack’s was about to go into full blossom as the East Coast “mecca” for glam metal and hairspray bands.

I was the youngest person in that newsroom by what felt like 20 years at that point, so NO ONE ELSE EVEN WANTED TO DO IT!

What a scam, I had, running around to free concerts every night and getting paid $25 to do it. For example, usually the seats were in the third row at Merriweather and that came complete with a picture and an introduction to most of the bands, either before or after the show.

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No more camping out, no more spending money for tickets to see all of my favorite bands. And, not only THAT, I got to come back ,write about the concerts and see my stuff in the newspaper the next day.

Do you know how many chicks I met with that racket?

Wanna go to Hammerjack’s? I have a backstage pass!

When I was AT Hammerjack’s, I HAD a backstage pass!

I was 21 years old (OK…or maybe I wasn’t?)!

Hair spray metal was in and life was VERY good for me!

My favorite story was when Alex Van Halen called to do an advance interview in June 1986 for their “5150” tour at the Capital Centre. Sammy Hagar had just replaced David Lee Roth in one of the biggest rock “scandals” of the time, and Alex (he was the drummer) and I chatted for about 30 minutes and he was just super nice and thought it was cool that I liked the new album (most Van Halen fans were miffed that Roth was gone and hated Hagar — for the record, I STILL think 5150 is the band’s best work).

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Alex asked where I lived and if I was coming to the show. I told him Baltimore and he said, “Well, we’re in Philadelphia tonight. You oughta come see the show!”

I got off the phone, jumped in the shower and my mother started screaming that I had a phone call.

I was wet, it was loud and my mother started screaming “Alex Van Hagar is on the phone for you!”

Turned out it was only Alex Van Halen calling back: “Hey man, I took care of the tickets and passes,” he said. “You’re all set! So get your ass up here! We’re having a party backstage before the show. Come now, and you’re in.”
Two hours later I was drinking beer with every member of Van Halen in their dressing room in the basement of the Spectrum in Philadelphia. It was June 1986. I was 17.

I don’t want to bore you with the music thing, but that early time during my gig at The Evening Sun was just incredible.

I honestly can’t remember a happier time in my life.

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I was writing sports stories by day, covering mainly high school sports, and working on the sports desk all night. (I eventually went back to school during the late mornings and graduated from the University of Baltimore in three years from 1989 to 1992).

And the real “perk” was something that money couldn’t buy: a laminated ALL-ACCESS pass for Hammerjack’s (not to mention tickets, backstage passes and interviews with literally EVERY band that came through town!)?

“Hammers,” as we called it, was a pretty regular stop en route to my overnight shift on Calvert Street. Every show, every groupie, every band, every party — I saw itall. Poison, Kiss, Warrant, Black Crowes, Guns N’ Roses, The Alarm, The Smithereens — it was my regular hangout and I knew the entire staff, all the bartenders, roadies, techs.

Of course today, that sacred ground has merged into the fabric of the Baltimore sports scene. You can drink beer in the exact spot Kiss’ Paul Stanley called Maryland a “dairy state” when he saw two women at the club remove their shirts and bras while hanging over the balcony during a solo show there in 1989.

It’s the east side parking lot for M&T Bank Stadium today.

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The music critic thing brought me an amazing array of cool experiences beyond neat pictures, free tickets and some autographs.

I had real “life” experiences with some of the people I met along the way.

I got to play tennis with Engelbert Humperdinck (My best pal Tom Kapp played doubles on my side and hit “Enge” in the nuts with a forehand volley! I can’t MAKE this stuff up!).

I hung out backstage and got a personal dressing room tour from Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora. Billy Joel invited me to eat crabs one night, even though I couldn’t do it. The guys from ZZ Top were some of the nicest people I’d ever met. I did a sitdown with Robert Plant on the “Now and Zen” tour at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia and he bought my 5-year old son, Barry, some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at the counter. David Bowie and I had dinner with his crew in Adams Morgan in D.C. one night after a show.

The rock and roll beat was nice, no doubt, but the coup de grace came in April 1986 when my boss, Jack Gibbons, issued me my first Orioles season credential.

At The News American I had covered a few Washington Caps games (I even drove my Pop to see the Calgary Flames one night right after I got my driver’s license, even though he really didn’t like hockey he thought it was cool that I had a press pass!) and was a devotee of the Baltimore Skipjacks all along.
But to have a press pass to see the BALTIMORE Orioles at Memorial Stadium for free all season? 1986 Orioles pass

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NOW THAT WAS ABOUT THE COOLEST THING EVER!

Even better than drinking beer with Van Halen, I thought! (But not by much…)

And the real perks?

I could sit in the press box ANYTIME I wanted to, eat all of the free crab cakes, cheeseburgers, French fries and drink all of the free soda I wanted!

What more could a 17-year old from Dundalk ask for, right?

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