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|| News Item: Posted 1999-10-22

Diamonds In The Rough
By Paul Gero, Arizona Republic

Photo by
Thirty years ago, when the Chicago Cubs' season became the living embodiment of the word "fold" and the Mets became synonymous with "miracle" and won the 1969 World Series , I didn't think I could be more sad.

During the recent Division Championship Series, the Mets kept coming back like a bad penny and, thirty years later, still haunt me. During the summer while covering a Diamondbacks game, I joked with a friend that the Dbacks this season might actually make me forget about the summer of '69. Almost.

Despite not being in NY to witness the bitter end (I was listening to the game on the radio in Tucson where I was attending a friend's wedding) the hurt ran deep. Hearing the defeat on journeyman catcher Todd Pratt's (on the trip down, we breathed a collective sigh of relief that Mike Piazza was NOT in the line up) homer in extra innings might actually have been worse than to witness it on the television screen.

Photo by Michael Chow/Arizona Republic

Photo by Michael Chow/Arizona Republic
The only images were the sorrowful ones conjured up in my mind's eye. Radio, the oldest medium of broadcasting the sport, was a rather appropriate and ironic way to listen to the end for one of the newest teams in baseball. A new one trying to make a history in a game steeped in it.

I had eagerly anticipated at least an NLCS series with the Braves and was booked for a Monday departure. I had been anticipating a long October for the Dbacks in the post season as did many of us who regularly covered the team.

I know, I know you say, we're supposed to be impartial, almost standoffish about a team. The kid in me, who was crushed by the defeat of his favorite team, began to slowly and silently peek out in a man almost forty. As I watched this team from the opening day throughout the season, I noticed the magical play that accompanies a team of destiny.

I saw it in the1982 Milwaukee Brewers who ended up in the World Series that year against the Cardinals as I covered them on my first internship at the Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel (a newspaper that I delivered for 3 years and offered the first sign of spring after the bleak Wisconsin winters).

That harbinger: seeing the Brewers pitchers and catchers stretching in photographs transmitted from Sun City, AZ where they had , in abundance, palm trees and sunshine) and the 1984 Cubs who were snake bit in their series against the San Diego Padres and never got to the Series.

The regular seasons of all these teams were amazing and exciting and joyful and made me realize exactly why I like baseball so much. All these teams pulled games out of their collective rearends, winning when they certainly should not. This year's Dbacks team was no exception.

Photo by
The beginning was pretty ominous. In the much anticipated and over-hyped opening day squaring off of multi-million dollar pitchers, the Dbacks lost to the Dodgers, and Kevin Brown. The look Randy Johnson had in the latter stages of the game came back in Game one of the Division playoffs and during his stellar performance against the Cardinals' and Jose Jimenez where he still lost on a no-hitter. The frustration that guy must feel to have such a strong arm and season and then have the really meaningful games go the other way.

But after the season-opening West Coast swing which they performed miserably, the Dbacks settled down and started winning. The first time that they won in the ninth inning, coming from a seemingly insurmountable deficit and winning on Matt Williams' homer, I sensed something was going on here. It was the beginning.

I started covering the Dbacks as my "beat" in the first part of June. Earlier in the season our paper covered the team but we had a variety of people covering the game. It was decided by Dave Seibert, who was running the department, that we needed to have someone at the game from beginning to end. After some thought, I volunteered.

On my work days and when the Dbacks were home, they were my only assignment. I would get to the stadium around 4 or so and spend some time shooting batting practice or archiving digital files and storing them. That was the other part of the deal: it would be a digital position in order to make deadlines. It worked, though a side of me wished I had some of these frames on film (like the no-hitter reaction, Matt Mantei, Randy Johnson reaction, etc.)

I got to know a lot more about the digital camera and how to make it work as a result of this assignment. For example, I experimented and would take a photograph of the field of each preset color balance on the Canon D2000 and found--oddly enough--that the fluorescent color balance actually looked the best at the BOB. In fact, I decided to check it out against my color meter and sure enough, it WAS fluorescent and needed 22.5 points to correct ...Hmmm. And, the preset fluorescent was even better than doing a custom white balance. Go figure.

I also had to learn that shooting sports with a digital camera is totally different than shooting with a camera/rocket like the EOS-3 or a Nikon F5...*totally* different. At least with the video back on the camera, I could tell if I got it or not. Instant elation or disappointment. Take your pick. I also began to pick my moments much, much more closely because I knew that I usually had just one shot at many photographs.

Photo by Paul Gero/Arizona Republic

Photo by Paul Gero/Arizona Republic
The instant feedback from video was great particularly in trying to get a certain type of photograph of a pitcher. I was photographing the sidearm delivery of (then) Oakland A's reliever Billy Taylor and wanted to get the ball just coming off his fingers--with a 600 from near home plate Tough but it worked. It took a bit of reshooting to get it just right, but was able to know before I left the shooting well, if I had a decent shot of the guy.

One of the distinct advantages of this beat coverage was getting to know a team, it's personnel and its tendencies. I had a taste of that in the last two autumns, when I covered the Arizona Cardinals at training camp and on the road. Still, it's not quite the same as you see a lot more baseball games. I enjoyed that aspect of the Cardinals "beat." I became aware of the key personalities in the NFL and particularly on the Cards and that same thing occurred covering the Dbacks. Even in my younger days, I don't think I had as much understanding of the actual game of baseball that developed over this summer.

One trip where the advantages of digital became hugely apparent was in Seattle in July covering the return of Randy Johnson and the opening of Safeco Field. With the help of Elaine Thompson of the Seattle AP, I set up shop right in the photo well on the third base line. It was great being able to stay in the box to edit and transmit.

During the latter part of the game, Johnson struck out hitter Edgar Martinez (probably the best designated hitter in the game) and he was ecstatic. I shot it, marked a couple to view, popped the disk into the Mac and within five minutes or so, the paper was getting a file that landed on the front page of the sports section. We were really close on deadline and the digital advantage allowed us to really capture the feel of the game and a key play.

A couple of highlights this season were witnessing Randy Johnson pitch terrifically, despite (oddly) getting little run support in several key games. The bullpen was shaky, at best, before the mid season addition of Matt Mantei who came on as a solid closer. It was interesting watching the Dbacks braintrust of managing general partner Jerry Colangelo and general manager Joe Garagiola, Jr. beam like new Dads when the Mantei deal was done. It was a magical year for four of the players: Jay Bell, Matt Williams, Luis Gonzalez (who had a 30+ game hitting streak early in the season) and Steve Finley. All had career years and all had over 100 RBIs.

Photo by Paul Gero/Arizona Republic

Photo by Paul Gero/Arizona Republic
For the cover of our playoff section, I photographed them at the stadium in a makeshift studio and the photograph ran six columns the day the playoff started. It took cajoling and help from beat writer Don Ketchum and others to make this happen, but it did. Seeing the display in the newspaper was one of the most satisfying moments of the season and the year.

The Seattle digital strategy was implemented in the Division Series against the Mets. Through the diligent effort of Rob Schumacher and Vickie Berryman at the Diamondbacks, our paper had phone lines on first and third base and I was able to transmit from the photo well. On the second game, I got the phone line and the computer so close to me that I didn't even have to leave my seat to edit. One of the security guards joked with me about shooting, editing, transmitting AND keeping score. I told him I was actually doing some day-trading on the web, in addition to the other things.

Rob Schumacher who handled the logistical arrangements at the stadium, also had a phone line close to his center field shooting spot. Jack Kurtz was shooting features and collected disks from the photographers in the inner photo wells --- Pete Schwepker, Deirdre Hamill, Emmanuel Lozano and Dave Cruz (where no phone lines were allowed) to edit and transmit. Michael Meister who is running the photo department for us on an interim basis, handled the flow back at the paper, five blocks away.

It was a smooth operation given the ultra late starting time on both games (8:10 p.m. MST) though we were able to get late photos played well including the one of Luis Gonzalez cheering Matt Williams' score from game two (see photo). I felt for the NY shooters in town for the game because they had a 3-hour disadvantage. Digital is good but it's not THAT good. But their newspapers seemed to be understanding and accommodating. Maybe newspapers should buy the rights to these games instead of ESPN or NBC (just kidding).

I suppose as magical a year it was for the Diamondbacks, it's appropriate that they were beaten by a team having an even more magical season --- the Mets. As they head back to Atlanta for game six in a series they should've long been out of (like the entire playoffs), and after witnessing the 15 inning marathon on Sunday (quite possibly the best game I have ever watched), it reaffirms my sense that despite it's problems with umpire unions, high salaries, cry babies who make millions, the game not only survives, it flourishes.

(Paul Gero is a staff photographer at the Arizona Republic.)

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