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Welcome to the Minor Leagues

By Michael R. Grunwald

The receptionist's voice oozed deepfried Southern hospitality.

"Howdy, you've reached the Middle Georgia Heat Wave, Lars Anderson here," he announced. "What the hell can I do for you?"

"Uh, is there someone around who can get me some information about the team?"

"Absolutely not," Lars chortled. "Absolutely not."

Pause. Long pause. I managed a weak chuckle. The guy was nice, but he had a lousy sense of timing. Suddenly, he broke the silence.

"Why of course I can get you some information!" he roared. "I am the general manager of the durned club!"

When my editor informed me that I would be covering the Bay State Titans' opening game, I had only one question. Who the hell were the Bay State Titans? When my blushing editor admitted he wasn't sure, I had another question. Why me?

I already knew the answer to Question #2: Because I was the intern, and it is the intern's sacred duty to deal with events no one else would cover at gunpoint.

I soon found out the answer to Question #1: The Titans were an expansion team in the Minor League Football System, where the coaches are barely paid, the players aren't paid at all and the general managers answer their own phones. I was assigned to the Titans' first game ever.

Stop the presses.

Middle Georgia, Lars explained, was not a Soviet republic clamoring for independence. It was an expansion team that played games out of Macon, a small working-class Southern town.

"This league wouldn't fly in rich places," Lars said. Last season, the upper-class Fairfax, Va., franchise had folded. The blue-collar Scranton, Pa., organization had survived.

The Titans would hang their hats in Lynn, Mass. Lynn, Lars said, was another hardworking, football-crazed town in the Macon mold. Lars knew whereof he spoke--his father played for the Lynn Classical High School teams in the '40s and still lives there.

Lars wasn't the only Middle Georgian returning to Massachusetts. Heat Wave Coach Lou Saban, a legendary motivator who has coached three pro teams, seven college programs and served as New York Yankees president under George Steinbrenner, landed his first pro job in 1960 with the then-Boston Patriots, an expansion team in the AFL.

I called Saban up (at home, of course) and asked him about starting over again with a new team. Wasn't it all a bit familiar?

"You know, I was thinking the same damn thing," Saban said. "This is 1960 all over again, and I'm still enjoying myself like I always enjoy myself."

I hadn't reached a receptionist, but I had certainly received a warm reception. Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad, after all.

Then again, maybe it was.

On game day, I got hopelessly lost on the way to the Manning Bowl despite the expert advice of countless wellintentioned Lynnites. ("Go down three lights, and take a left. No wait, two lights. Then take a right...") By the time I arrived, I was in a pretty foul mood.

On my way up to the press box, I noticed a man wearing a Heat Wave T-shirt. Lars had told me to come visit the Macon contingent, so I introduced myself.

"Howdy, Mike! I'm Lars Anderson!" Undoubtedly the jolliest man I have ever met. My spirits surged.

"Hi, Lars. How was the trip up?"

"Fuckin' miserable, Mike!

It seemed that the Heat Wave's chartered bus had failed to show up. Lars had been forced to schedule a last-minute game-day flight. Hmmmm. You don't see problems like this in the NFL.

You don't see press boxes like this in the NFL, either. I didn't mind the makeshift stairs, the creaky floors, the peeling walls or the paint chips falling on my head. (I later learned that the press box was the only part of the ancient stadium that had undergone renovations.) I wasn't thrilled about the large beetle I had to scrape off my seat. But what really made me nervous was the presence of only one telephone in the box. The local radio station was using it for its direct feed. How would I send my story?

"Don't worry," a man in a red shirt told me. "You can use it after the game."

I trudged out of the stadium to a Stop n' Shop pay phone down the road.

"11:15 deadline, Mike. Hope everything goes smoothly."

I made some quick calculations. Game starts 7:30. Three hours for the game, 20 minutes for interviews, 20 minutes to touch up my story, five minutes to send it. No problem.

"I hope so, too."

At 7:33, the P.A. announcer had already mentioned all of the Titan sponsors. He had already announced the entire Titan roster and half the Titan coaching staff. Was he planning on thanking every Titan fan individually?

At 7:37, a Lynn resident delivered the worst and longest rendition of the national anthem I had ever heard. Not a good omen.

At 7:45, the Lynn mayor flipped a coin. Bay State to receive.

At 7:46, the P.A. announcer directed the spectators' attention to the concession stands, where non-alcoholic beer was being sold. The fans booed.

At 7:47, Middle Georgia kicker Steve Singletary prepared to kick off. The ball fell off the tee.

At 7:49, I sprinted to the Stop n' Shop to beg for an extra 20 minutes. As I exited the stadium, I saw the Bay State quarterback separate his shoulder on the first play of the game.

Fuckin' miserable.

The action was hardly NFL quality. Both punters got off 10-yarders. Both kickers shanked 45-yard field goal attempts. The receivers had more drops than a bottle of Visine. The first touchdown was scored when the Titan reserve QB tripped over his feet in his own end zone and fumbled the football.

But as Titan safety Julio Fernandez said after the game, "These guys have heart." Playing football for free may sound romantic, but players who supply their own jockstraps and hold down day jobs must have an unyielding determination to crack the bigs, an undying love for the game, or a screw loose. Or all three.

Certain players kept catching my eye. The 30-year-old NFL journeyman linebacker looking for one last shot. The 19-year-old, 300-pound defensive end with clear pro potential. The flashy wideout who danced to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" during midfield introductions.

The P.A. announcer was doing his damnedest to keep people entertained. He launched his Johnny Most and Jack Nicholson impressions. He apologized for the long ticket lines.

When he announced that the attendance total of 8450 had shattered the league attendance record, the 3000 or so fans in the stadium laughed. They actually laughed. One guy wondered aloud whether they were counting people in nearby houses.

Lars's father used to sell out the Manning Bowl for every game. Still, the fans who were there were having a good time. So was I.

I had never seen an entire football crowd laugh before.

The Titans won, thanks to an exciting goalline stand. 10:35--plenty of time for postgame interviews.

"It was a win," Titan Coach Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton told me. "I don't give a damn how it looked."

At 10:50, I sprinted back to the press box, ahead of schedule. There was no telephone to be seen. And no man with a red shirt. I went through an two-minute spin cycle from calm crisis management to fury to panic and back to calm. I sat down to write my story.

Finally, a team official who had heard of my plight offered to let me use the team's direct line. The phone was in a pitch-black lockerroom. I could barely make out a piece of masking tape reading "Lynn Calls Only." Somehow, my story went through. Just five minutes over deadline. Just one minute before I was kicked out of the clubhouse.

I still had to call the copy desk to check for questions, and I had no idea how. The clubhouse was off limits. The Stop n' Shop had 10-minute lines. I saw a party going on in someone's front yard. What the hell.

"Excuse me," I whimpered. "Can I use your phone?"

A burly guy holding two open beers walked towards me from across the yard.

"You've got some big ones, you know," the bruiser said. "Absolutely no way you can use this phone."

A long pause.

"Aaah, I'm just kidding," yelled the man, breaking into a huge grin. "Wanna beer?" He let me into his kitchen, and I called the desk.

"Pretty good story," the slotman said. "But I don't ever want to see you miss a deadline again."

I mumbled an apology.

"Bush league, Grunwald," he replied. "Strictly bush league."

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