By Skip Bayless
Page 2

Each replay I saw of Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers going after that TV cameraman -- 50? 100? -- seemed to bring back another memory of another clash with an athlete or coach.

I've had my share. Every sports journalist has had his or hers. Yet most of the confrontations between writers and the athletes they cover don't wind up on "SportsCenter." Many times, the TV cameras aren't around to record how it looked and sounded.

I've been bumped and shoved, but never punched. For me, some of these discussions got very loud and settled nothing; others cleared the air and created mutual respect and productive working relationships.

I wish I could say I've always remained calm and professional with an athlete or coach in my face, but … well, you be the judge.

Doubting Thomas
I walked into the visitors' clubhouse at Cleveland's Jacobs Field at 9:30 on a 35-degree Sunday morning. The Chicago White Sox were opening there the following day, and a team PR man had told me their marquee acquisition and Opening Day starter, David "Boomer" Wells, would be available for an interview before the White Sox worked out.

Frank Thomas
You'd be a little intimidated by Frank Thomas, admit it.

Several players had arrived, but no media.

I planned to write my Chicago Tribune column on Wells. But before I could get to his locker, the one man on the team bigger than the 250-pound Boomer blocked my path.

"What are you doing in here?" Frank Thomas asked.

"Uh, I'm going to interview David Wells," I said.

"No, you're not," he said. "You're leaving."

"No, I'm not."

I knew exactly what this was about.

Thomas had shown up for a team meeting on the first day of spring training, then ducked out the back door. Teammates were mystified. At first, speculation swirled about an illness in his family. Then it came clear that Thomas was simply holding out for more money.

His timing couldn't have been more revolting.

He had several years left on his contract, and he had been heavily criticized the season before for refusing to play with what team insiders suspected was a fairly minor injury.

So you'd better believe I blasted Thomas in print. But I wasn't alone: Just about every columnist and talk show host took him apart. Maybe my piece was a little too harsh. But the Big Hurt had become a big pain for a team with big plans.

I tried to explain to Thomas how bad he had made himself look. But he was in no mood to discuss it.

He said something like, "You hurt me and my family, and you are no longer allowed in this clubhouse."

I told him he had a right not to talk to me, if he chose, but that I had a right to be in that clubhouse.

"No, you don't," he said, starting to move me toward the door with his sheer mass. I felt like Steve Nash trying to guard Shaq.

At one point, I asked Thomas if he had actually read what I wrote. He said he had, but he wasn't too convincing. Many times, wives or girlfriends tell a player what a column said -- or at least what they want the player to believe "that no-good so-and-so" had written about him. When that happens, you usually have no chance for a constructive conversation.

A star athlete on a testosterone-laced clubhouse stage defending his honor and that of his woman against a scrawny sportswriter who has all but questioned his manhood? Good luck.

As a young columnist, I was taught that if you ripped a player, you had to have the guts to show up in the clubhouse the following day. Now I don't agree with that. I'm certainly not afraid to face a player after I've criticized him, but I've found that the worst place to do it is on his turf, in front of his teammates.

Thomas and I would have done much better anywhere but there.

I tried to stand my ground. Thomas raised his voice and got in my face. I raised my voice and used a word I use only when I lose my temper. The next thing I knew, manager Jerry Manuel was stepping between us.

I had a solid working relationship with Manuel. But he surprised me by saying, "I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

I said I had a scheduled interview. He said no, I was leaving. That's when it occurred to me that Manuel was doing this for my own good.

I don't think Thomas would have hit me. But I do think he was about to physically remove me, using his hands, and I know that I was about to physically resist.

Manuel was right: He couldn't ask Thomas to leave. And if I didn't leave, something bad was going to happen. I left.

Dodging Dodgers
As a cub reporter for the Los Angeles Times in the late 1970s, I was assigned to cover the opening of Steve Garvey Junior High in Lindsay, Calif. Garvey had a leading-man profile and Popeye forearms, and when he wasn't hammering game-winning hits for the Dodgers, he was living the Perfect Life as the Perfect Dad with the Perfect Wife and Perfect Children.

Or so many Dodgers fans believed.

Actually, Steve was a pretty good guy -- for being a highly paid, hero-worshipped athlete surrounded by more Hollywood temptations than most of us can imagine. As I always say, pro athletes invariably make the worst role models.

The school would later regret naming itself after Garvey.

But that day I rode up to Lindsay -- three or four hours by car from Los Angeles -- with Steve and his wife Cyndy. Somewhere near Bakersfield, she stunned me by saying: "What's all this BS you guys write about the Dodger 'family'?"

That's how manager Tommy Lasorda's team was portrayed -- as one big, happy, Dodger-blue family.

She told me her husband's teammates were jealous of him, and that their wives and girlfriends had ostracized her. She was all but daring me to write about it.

A few days later, I asked Steve if he would go on the record about this. He said he would -- if his teammates would. So I went to spring training in Vero Beach to talk to his teammates, then to Steve.

I spoke first to third baseman Ron Cey, who seemed shocked that Garvey had agreed to talk if his teammates would. Cey tried to talk me out of writing the story. When he failed, he tipped off Lasorda, who soon called me into his office.

At first Lasorda affably tried to talk me out of doing a story that "wouldn't be good for our baseball team." I sensed a subtle suggestion that I was a part of "our." When I affably resisted, saying, gee, I was just trying to do my job, Lasorda said: "I thought we were friends."

I smiled and said: "Tommy, I wouldn't say we were friends."

That was it. Lasorda's smile disappeared faster than the lasagna he ate after games. I had given him the excuse he needed to tear into me. I had questioned our "friendship."

He came around the desk and began screaming in my face the way he would at an umpire after being ejected. I distinctly remember tiny pieces of spittle flying.

Tommy Lasorda
Tommy Lasorda's not amused by mascots, or reporters who aren't his friends.

I knew Lasorda fairly well. I had gone to hear him when he spoke one Sunday morning at my sports editor's church. But I didn't socialize with him, and he couldn't have told you one thing a friend would know -- my then-wife's name, where I lived, where I was from, nothing.

We were "friends" only because he had given me colorful quotes and some background info for several stories I had written -- and in exchange I was supposed to protect him and his team.

But now Lasorda had realized I'd made no such deal, and I was hearing words I did not hear from him in church.

This was the longest and loudest any athlete or coach has ever yelled at me. Lasorda yelled me all the way out into the hall -- to the shock of a passing TV reporter -- finally threatening never to talk to me again if I wrote this story.

To their credit, Dodgers executives pretty much ordered Lasorda to let me interview him the following day about how the team treated Garvey. Then again, Lasorda answered nearly every question with "yes" or "no" or "I don't know."

I wrote the story.

And to this day when I pass Lasorda, he looks the other way.

Tom Not So Terrific
In 1981, Tom Watson was on the verge of winning the Dallas tournament named after his teacher and father figure, Byron Nelson, for a third year in a row. It was a neat story -- but as a columnist for the Dallas Morning News, a story I sensed local fans were tiring of.

As I followed Watson that Saturday, I heard only polite applause from the gallery. Tom was (and is) a very nice man, but he wasn't exactly enchanting fans the way Seve Ballesteros was or Tiger Woods does. In those days, Watson played in a polite trance. Not until he chipped in on No. 17 at Pebble Beach to beat Nicklaus at the following year's U.S. Open would he come running out of his cocoon to share his emotions.

So I wrote a column for Sunday saying Watson was "boringly brilliant."

I've written much tougher stuff. It didn't occur to me that Watson would like it or hate it or even read it.

But my timing was nearly as bad as Frank Thomas' holdout.

On Sunday, Watson missed a 1½-foot putt on the first hole of a playoff to lose to Bruce Lietzke -- and Watson was still steaming about my column when he arrived in the interview tent.

Watson began by saying, "Skip Bayless knows so much about me, he gets to ask the first question."

I was down by the 18th green, watching the winner accept the trophy. But as I followed Lietzke toward the interview tent, another reporter told me Watson was hot. So I veered over and caught him on the putting green as he finished a TV interview.

Wrong place, wrong time. Did Watson ever show me some emotion! Ever know anyone who smiled when they got mad? Watson was smiling bullets at me.

He said, "You know, you're so smart, you have a bad case of RCI. Do you know what that means?"

I didn't. I later found out he meant rectal-cranial inversion, as in, my head was up my you-know-what.

I tried to reason with Watson as he strode toward the clubhouse, but he would have none of it. I considered apologizing, but for what? I stood by what I wrote.

That night, another reporter called me at home to say Watson's wife wanted me to know Tom would be at a crippled children's hospital at 8 a.m. and that I should be there to see the real Tom. My goodness, I hadn't written that her husband was a bad guy, just that he didn't electrify golf fans.

Ten years later, on the eve of the Byron Nelson tournament, Watson caught me at the entrance to the media center and basically apologized for what happened that day. We sat and talked for a long time, and I was inspired to write another column about him. I'm pretty sure Tom Watson liked it.

The most bizarre retaliation I've experienced from an athlete came courtesy of Cliff Harris, an All-Pro safety for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s. In Dallas, a city that liked to look at itself in its mirrored buildings, image was everything. And Harris had somehow convinced himself I had tarnished his image and sped up his retirement with a couple of minor negative references in my column.

As if what I wrote had a profound influence on coach Tom Landry.

In those days, I played basketball a couple of times a week at the Aerobics Center in North Dallas -- a court frequented by former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach. Like Harris, Staubach was in his first year away from football.

One afternoon, I found myself in a 2-on-2 full-court game against Staubach and a buddy of his. My teammate was my friend and fellow Vanderbilt graduate Pat Toomay, who played defensive end for the Cowboys and Raiders. Mostly because of the 6-foot-6 Toomay, we beat Staubach's team badly. Staubach, a legendary competitor, was not pleased.

A few days later, Staubach wanted a rematch. I was led to believe Toomay would be there. I was wrong.

Staubach brought a new teammate -- Cliff Harris. Staubach also brought me a new teammate -- a guy who wasn't bad, but who wasn't Toomay.

Naturally, Harris guarded me. Fortunately, he wasn't much bigger than me.

But in a game without referees, I found myself nose to often-broken nose with a former star who was nicknamed "Crash" because of his reckless disregard for his body. Now Harris, who wanted to get even with me, was about to have reckless disregard for my body. Here was a man looking for a new outlet for his collision addiction, and I couldn't even wear a helmet and pads.

The game got very physical. Several times when I drove to the basket, I wound up sprawled on the running track that circled the court. But to Harris' credit, not once did he cheap-shot me. No elbows, no submarining, no blood. After a while, I was fouling him as hard as he was me.

But he and Staubach kicked our behinds on the scoreboard. And when it was over, I believe Harris was almost as happy as I was.

Marked Man
One night after a Cowboys playoff game in Detroit, I hitched a ride home on the team's charter flight. Some editors frowned on this because it was a subtle way for a team to buy a columnist's objectivity by providing free airfare. But as any player or coach from the Jerry Jones era will tell you, my objectivity was not for sale.

I just wanted to get home faster.

And in this case, I was risking my life. Oh, the plane was as safe as planes can be. But I sat in the front of a coach section filled to the back with angry football players drinking alcohol. That's a dangerous mix.

The Lions had just taught Jimmy Johnson's young Cowboys a 38-6 lesson, and the silence behind me was deafening.

But about halfway through the flight, a player commandeered the PA system and said, "Skip Bayless, you are wanted at the back of the plane."

Media members seated around me gave me "uh oh" glances. One of them said, "Just ignore it." No, I said, I can't back down.

I inhaled and exhaled deeply and started walking up the aisle as if I could whip anyone on the plane. I was scared to death.

Waiting for me by the lavatory door was the scariest man on that team, left tackle Mark Tuinei (who's since passed away). Left guard Nate Newton, who weighed about 350 pounds, had told me Tuinei was the one Cowboy he couldn't beat in a fight to the death. And now Tuinei was literally breathing fire on me -- I could smell the alcohol on his breath as he positioned me against the bathroom door.

"Why have you been so hard on Troy?" Tuinei asked.

Troy Aikman
Scary things can happen when you pick on Troy Aikman.

Ah, now I got it. Tuinei in effect was serving as quarterback Troy Aikman's bodyguard.

Aikman's sprained knee had given backup Steve Beuerlein a chance to play, and the team had taken off. Not only had the Cowboys stunned the Eagles in Philadelphia to make the playoffs, but in the first round they had knocked off Mike Ditka's Bears at Soldier Field.

I knew Johnson still wasn't sold on Aikman, and the team obviously had responded to Beuerlein's moxie and leadership. As Jones would say after the Cowboys broke through the following season and won the Super Bowl with Aikman: "Jimmy was as surprised as anyone about Troy's success."

But Beuerlein had struggled that day in Detroit, and Aikman hadn't been much better in relief. Still, Aikman obviously was steamed that I had led the cheers for Beuerlein, and now Aikman eased up behind Tuinei to listen to the interrogation.

I calmly tried to explain to "Too-ey," as he was called, why I had written nice things about Beuerlein. But Tuinei wasn't interested in polite logic. He obviously just wanted to intimidate me, or worse.

He began to shove me against the bathroom door with explosive little open-handed shots to the shoulders, as if he were pass blocking a defensive end. I wasn't hurt, just a little shook up. But I was too scared to be scared, if that makes sense.

Now several other players gathered in the aisle to watch the show -- or maybe they just needed to use the bathroom and were afraid to ask Tuinei's permission. Even if one of them had thought Tuinei was going too far, I doubted that any player would have the guts to say so.

This time I didn't raise my voice or get angry. I wasn't afraid of Frank Thomas, but this was a whole new ball game.

Through a maniacal grin, Tuinei said: "How would you like it [shove] if somebody [shove] wrote bad stuff about you [shove]?"

Suddenly, the players in the aisle parted and Jimmy Johnson came rolling through like Emmitt Smith on third and short.

"What are you doing back here?" he asked me with a knowing smile.

I just shrugged.

"I think you need to get back to your seat," he said. "Same for all the rest of you."

Fortunately for me, there was one man who scared Mark Tuinei.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice weekly on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.

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