As column concludes, thanks for memories

The Baltimore Sun

Nineteen years ago this month, I wrote my first column for The Sun. Cal Ripken Jr. had played in something like 800 straight games. Art Modell's football team had almost another decade to go in Cleveland.

I wrote more than 2,500 columns after that first one, covering every sport from baseball to football to, well, ice dancing and cross country skiing.

This is the end of the line. I'm leaving The Sun.

I had more fun than anyone deserves to have with any job. My bosses sent me to 10 countries and 36 of the 50 states. I wrote columns from almost every major sporting event and closely followed the Orioles, Ravens and Terps for years.

I was there for the Ravens' Super Bowl victory, Ripken's 2,131 celebration, Juan Dixon's magical ride - pretty much any epic sports high this city has experienced in recent years. I also witnessed many lesser-known gems such as Coppin State's upset of South Carolina in the 1997 NCAA basketball tournament, one of my personal favorites.

Unfortunately, I was also on hand for the Orioles' decline, Barbaro's breakdown and the deaths of beloved local figures Johnny Unitas, Elrod Hendricks and Chuck Thompson - grim memories, all.

I considered it a privilege to be able to voice my opinion about whatever was going on, good or bad. More people are shouting louder than ever today, with the Internet having turned everyone into an opinion-maker, but I always knew I was being heard. There's no better feeling for a writer.

In the beginning, I was the out-of-towner; people would say they didn't respect my comments about the Orioles because I didn't grow up here. It seemed to calm them when I told them I was originally from "down near where Brooks is from." (Texas, as opposed to his Arkansas.)

In those days, I wrote on bulky prehistoric laptops that weighed more than my dog, and when readers responded, they either wrote a letter or phoned. Remember life without e-mail? When I returned from the 1990 World Cup soccer tournament in Italy (gone a month, best assignment ever), I was greeted with a 20-page, single-space, handwritten note from an English soccer nut who was visiting Baltimore. He ripped apart every sentence I had written, called me names and signed it, "Cheers."

Those were the days.

I guess if you stick around somewhere long enough, as I did here, you become family at some point. My picture ran with every column, my hair faithfully thinning with each new shot taken every few years. People feel like they get to know you when you share breakfast with them for almost two decades. It becomes a relationship.

When my father died suddenly and I wrote a column about it, I received hundreds of kind responses. Some people - total strangers - even made donations in his name. You don't ever forget that.

A year later, I wrote a less-than-positive column about Ray Lewis a few days before the Super Bowl, and my inbox went tilt with angry e-mails.

That's how it went in the column-writing gig - some days they liked you and some days they didn't. As it should be.

I like to think my column stood for themes I consider important, such as the absence of college in college sports and the Orioles' chronic inability to right what has gone wrong.

I shouted myself hoarse on the latter, and if I'm rooting for anything as I leave, it's that the day comes when the Orioles finally give their fans something to cheer about again. The Ravens have taken over, but this is still a good baseball town that deserves better.

Whatever the topic, and regardless of whether I was dealing in facts or opinions (or both), I tried not to take sports too seriously; it's just games, not life and death. But steroids and the lengthening athletic police blotter have made it harder to have a yuk without it coming at someone's expense. Too bad.

But it's still a glorious thing to have a column and be able to stand up and shout. Why am I giving it up? It wasn't an easy decision, but I've developed another writing life focusing on books, and I'm going to concentrate on that and whatever else comes along. We'll see how it goes. I'm not leaving Baltimore. Hey, I'm a Terps Dad.

I can't leave the paper without thanking my colleagues for having helped make the job so enjoyable. It was an honor to share a column rotation with Bob Maisel, Mike Littwin, Ken Rosenthal, Mike Preston, Laura Vecsey, David Steele, Rick Maese, Peter Schmuck and the incomparable John Steadman.

I also can't leave without thanking the readers for bothering to care all these years. It was an unforgettable ride, and the pleasure was all mine.

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