During batting practice before Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, with the Orioles' season on the verge of going down the drain, a member of the front office approached me on the field at Camden Yards.
"Man," he said, "are you hot or what?"
L "Your picks, man," he said, "your football picks are great."
Ah. Yes. My weekly NFL predictions, which ran every Friday during the season, reflecting my choices in that weekend's games. I was one of five Sun staffers whose picks were printed.
"I've been following you guys all season," the Orioles' official said on that toughest of days for his ballclub.
Sometimes it seemed the whole city was following us.
Our picks ran in little type buried deep in the sports section, but the interest in them was nothing short of amazing.
Barely a day could pass without someone making a comment to me.
Making public NFL picks is, it turns out, much the same as being a politician. You can't waffle. (We picked every game every week, against the point spread.) You're so exposed to ridicule that it's almost too painful to bear. (Results were printed.)
And, of course, your opinion becomes a public matter.
All of which means that your life becomes one long talk show.
Anyone who doubts the NFL's status as a national obsession has never picked games in the paper.
The howl from readers was consistent, loud and pointed.
One sent me a copy of my picks, salted and peppered for eating, when I had a bad week in November.
Then there was the time I was minding my business in a crowded elevator when a voice rumbled to life behind me.
"How could you pick the Saints?" a man asked.
Didn't know him. But he knew me -- or my picks, at least. (And there's no explanation for picking the Saints. It's just one of those irrational things.)
On Halloween night, I was stopped by a neighbor with a beef while touring the streets with my family.
"You're slumping," she said.
Turned out she was following my lead in her office pool.
I wanted to tell her that she shouldn't complain, that she'd had it pretty good if she was following my lead, because, as the Orioles' official had said, I was "hot" this year.
I took it one game at a time. I stayed within myself. And I took my game to the next level.
In the first two weeks of the season, I called 21 of 28 games right.
Just so you know, a .500 week is considered pretty good.
Twenty-one of 28? They name sandwiches after you in Las Vegas if you do it out there.
"Do you bet those picks?" a man asked on the phone the next week -- bet with a bookmaker, he meant.
Nope, I said, I'm not a gambling man.
"What a waste," he said.
I went on to finish the season 31 games over .500, safely ahead of my Sun pick-it brothers. (Ravens beat writer Mike Preston was a gallant runner-up, finishing a few games back. A search party is looking for my fellow columnist, Ken Rosenthal.)
I'm trying to stay humble -- I'd take my offensive line out to dinner, if I had one -- but I know a lot of writers in other cities who did this, and many never hit .500 all year.
One guy in Philadelphia even tried to get out of his pick-it %J responsibilities after a 2-13 week in October. He was crushed and humiliated.
A season of picking NFL games can do that to you.
It's 17 weeks in the fishbowl of public scrutiny, with your reputation staked on such issues as whether the Indianapolis Colts feel like playing.
Talk about vulnerable.
Me, I was flying all year. After a career of picking everything from bowl games to World Series to heavyweight title fights -- and getting as many wrong as I did right, including several Super Bowl picks too embarrassing to recount -- I had my career year.
If I had bet $100 on every game, I would have won $3,100.
Now I know how Brady Anderson felt when he went from 21 to 50 homers.
What can I say? I spent no more than five minutes making my picks each week, going on feel much more than exhaustive statistical analysis. One week, I made my selections while driving on the highway.
My secret? I picked a lot of underdogs, reasoning that it's better to have points on your side in a watered-down NFL in which most games are even.
Oh, and I also never picked the Ravens when they were favored.
It was a marathon that pushed us all to the brink of exhaustion. The Rams and Saints didn't play each other every week, it just seemed like they did.
Anyway, it's over until next year. The editors aren't making us pick the playoff games.
Just call my new 1-900 line for my GUARANTEED "GET-RICH" LOCK OF THE YEAR!
Final standings .. .. ..Season .. .. .. ..Week 17
John Eisenberg .. .. ..131-100 .. .. .. .. ..10-5
Mike Preston .. .. .. .127-104 .. .. .. .. ...9-6
Vito Stellino .. .. ...118-113 .. .. .. .. ..10-5
Gary Lambrecht .. .. ..116-115 .. .. .. .. ...9-6
Ken Rosenthal .. .. ...113-118 .. .. .. .. ...7-8
Pub Date: 12/24/97