24 Hours in Sports: One Reporter’s Quest

Can one reporter cover six major New York sporting events within a period of 24 hours and not lose his mind? We will find out today as Mike Tanier rents out the Bats blog and documents his experience with live blogging, photos and tweets throughout the day and into the night. After covering Friday night’s Red Bulls game, Tanier is attending five more area events today, including the Yankees-Indian’s game, the Belmont Stakes, and logging his experience live.

Follow him here and on Twitter (@FO_MTanier) using the hashtag #6sports.

My goal this weekend is to create some new sports memories, then shape them and share them, to try things I have never tried and find things I would never think to look for. This is not just a New York story, but a story of sports discovery. Maybe an afternoon on Randall’s Island will open my eyes to the beauty of the triple jump. Maybe I will win big at the Belmont. Maybe the views from the R.F.K. Bridge are so breathtaking that they are worth the tight schedule, unpredictable weather, and possibility that I will be hopelessly lost the moment I set foot in Queens.

This journey will be funny at times, but it will never be a joke. I may not find all of my venues, but I am sure I will find something.

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8:29 A.M. Waiting for Olympians While Watching Little League.

From a rock outcropping in Central Park near the six-mile marker of the Roadrunners Mini Marathon, I wait for Olympians while watching Little League.

June Saturday mornings belong to Little League in parks all over America, and Central Park is no exception. Kids field grounders and whiz by on Razor scooters. Poorly thrown balls bounce onto the footpaths. My own son’s game starts soon down in the Philly suburbs, and I am thinking of him as I watch these kids, who have better uniforms.

Little league game in CP. Surprised I am not blogging this too! #6sportsSat Jun 11 12:10:15 via MOTOBLUR

A sheepdog is playing fetch in front of me, and he is not very good at it. Cyclists pass. Sports belong to all of us on cool mornings, international superstars, nine-year olds who cannot field grounders, dogs who cannot catch Frisbees.

What we all need in our lives is the Mini Marathon public address announcer, a woman who embodies the “tough love” approach to sports persuasion. “Move it or lose it, ladies!” she shouted as the sweepers at the end of the 6,000 runner field straggled past. “Thanks for getting out of bed and joining us this morning!” I need this woman following me and exhorting me as I type. Part life coach, part trash talk specialist.

The leaders will pass soon, but it is drizzling, and this laptop is not waterproof. I will check in again soon.

7:56 A.M. At the Start of the 10K in Manhattan

The best time to experience Manhattan is in the hours just after dawn, before the throttle butterflies open and everyone starts careening through the day at 120 miles per hour.

Manhattan at 6:45 AM is a borough still stretching, gargling, and waiting for the coffee to percolate, a city with its guard down. You know that clarinet solo at the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue? It still warbles at 6:45 AM, not yet drowned out by the mash-up of hip-hop, flimi, and Cookie Monster death metal that keeps the borough moving by day.

Skies are overcast this morning. The dense grove of trees at Central Park West looks like a foreboding forest to my right as I report from beneath a fountain near Columbus Circle. I am surrounded by hundreds of distance runners, young and old, ready to compete in the New York Roadrunners Mini-Marathon.

The loneliness of the long distance runner intersected with the loneliness of the New Jersey commuter this morning as I shared a PATH train with several harriers, all as eager to speak with a 40-something male stranger with no press credentials as you might expect. One decided to walk the 30 blocks from Penn Station to the starting line along the same route I took, so I decided to try to beat her here. She had fitness and determination on her side; I had a very effective puddle jumping technique. I held a half-block lead until 40th Street, when I paused for a moment to consider stopping by Times headquarters and she flew past me. By 52nd Street, she had a comfortable block lead, but then she turned into a health food store. I win! Now, she gets to run 10 kilometers, and I get to sit and type. We are all winners.

Sharing the train with participants reminds me of the beauty of distance running: world class competitors share the event with weekend warriors. It would be like letting commuters onto the NASCAR track, though not quite as dangerous. The announcers just introduced a 79-year participant. There are girls in their teens nearby, and runners of dubious fitness, who will share the event with Olympians. What a wonderful way to start the day. Best of all, it is not 95 degrees. Or raining. Yet.

Tribute to grete waitz “Do what Grete would have done, change someones life for the better.” #6sportsSat Jun 11 11:53:09 via MOTOBLUR

Note: Runners will be timed using the Chrono Track B-Tag system, which accurately track individual times and movements. Soon, all citizens will be equipped with them.

Noteworthy competitors.

Linet Masai: winner of the 2009 World Championships in the 10K and Olympic competitor who finished fourth in 2008 in the 10,000 meters, which is an event of roughly similar length. (Kidding!) Masai’s personal best time in the one million centimeter event is 30 minutes and 48 seconds, which can cause blogging problems. Write too long a paragraph about Masai’s amazing start, and I may be spellchecking as she crosses the finish line.

Liliya Shobukhova, who has won marathons in London and Chicago and competed in the 5,000-meter event in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Shobukhova is famous for her ability to sprint at the end of a marathon: in Chicago in 2009, she ran the final 2.2 kilometers in six minutes and 23 seconds. In a less genteel sport, such a gift would be accompanied by excessive trash talking. “What, you are tired? It’s only been 24 miles! Gosh, I wonder what’s around that next bend. I will run ahead, take a look, come back, and let you know before you drop from exhaustion.” Harriers are nicer people than this.

Deena Kastor, winner of the 2004 event. Kastor also won a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics and holds U.S. women’s records in the marathon and half marathon. She is also a new mother, competing in her first race since the birth of her daughter in February. I wonder what kind of jogging strollers distance runners use. Hopefully something with good suspension, and a DVD player on board so the little one can enjoy some Blues Clues over the final few miles. I believe strollers are forbidden in this event. They always are in Philadelphia, where mothers might affix Ben Hur Greek Chariot wheels to the strollers, then boo the toddlers who topple onto the sidewalk.

Kastor also has a degree in journalism, making her not only far more qualified than me to compete in distance runs, but also far more qualified to write about them. Alas, search engines always assume I am looking for reality-television vixen Deena Cortese when I research Kastor; place third in the Olympics and achieve world-record times in grueling sports, and and you are still doomed to play second fiddle to a person who calls herself “The Blast.”

Race will start soon. Check the Twitter feed for updates!

7:21 A.M. ‘Edgy Journalistic Experiment’ or ‘Elaborate Joke’?
A fan gets the crowd going before the start of the Red Bulls-Revolution game on Friday night, the first event of Mike Tanier's six in 24 hours.Todd Heisler/The New York TimesA fan gets the crowd going before the start of the Red Bulls-Revolution game on Friday night, the first event of Mike Tanier’s six in 24 hours.

There’s a fine line between “edgy journalistic experiment” and “elaborate practical joke.” I believe that line runs through the East River under the R.F.K. Bridge, and I will be crossing it, on foot, in the late afternoon on Saturday, possibly in the rain.

When my editors contacted me about covering six different sporting events in 24 hours, I wondered if they were really plotting a complicated hoax at my expense. The more they described the project, the more I wondered. No press credentials? Right. Tweets, photos and video? Sure. I kept waiting for the instructions that proved they were kidding. Oh, wear this 25-pound satellite dish on your head, and make sure it is always pointed in the direction of 40th Street so we can pick up your signal. Walk sideways if you have to. It never reached the point at which no one on the conference call could keep from snickering. Not quite.

My wife was even more skeptical. “What makes you so sure this is not a joke?” she asked.

“Well, they want me to start and end the trip in Newark “

“Joke!” she said.

“And I am supposed to cover a track meet at iCarly Stadium out on Riker’s Island “

“Double joke!” she said.

I soon clarified that the track meet was to take place at Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island, but my confusion only underlined the absurdity of the task for which I too eagerly signed up. I have never covered track and field, and I don’t know Randall’s Island from Brigadoon. I would only be slightly further out of my element if The Times sent me to Jupiter. I am spectacularly unqualified for this. But then, that’s the point: I will cover events with a fresh voice and examine the New York sports scene with the wonder, confusion and enthusiasm of someone encountering the Belmont Stakes or a Central Park mini-marathon for the first time.

Of course, that’s exactly what you would tell a freelance writer if you wanted to trick him into doing something foolish, right?

Heedless of my own skepticism, let alone my wife’s, I accepted the assignment and began mapping a route that would take me from Red Bull Arena to Central Park to Yankee Stadium to Randall’s Island to Belmont Park and back to the Prudential Center in Newark as cheaply and efficiently as possible.

So I logged onto an M.T.A. transit map, or possibly a diagram of the circuit board of a microchip, or a chart of the circulatory system of a wombat. It did not matter; I barely made sense of the map. It looked like my 4-year-old’s scribbles, or the random pathways of the old Atari game Maze Craze. The M.T.A. people could have put a Minotaur in Forest Hills, and I would have accepted it as fact. New Yorkers have no trouble keeping this tangle of letters, numbers and colors straight, just as children of the rainforest can canoe around the Amazon tributaries without getting lost. I am from Philadelphia, with one main subway line and a few spurs. I am an algebra commuter in a calculus city.

Google Maps, which have clearly marked transit stops, were a little more helpful. I learned that my trip will take me through a parade of neighborhoods I thought only existed on rap albums and in Martin Scorsese films. Like any good out-of-towner, I immediately feared that hoodlums of every era and nationality would menace me at every stop. I was reviewing a Google Map, listening to Reasonable Doubt, watching “Goodfellas,” and trembling silently when an editor suggested the best way to get from the Adidas Grand Prix on Randall’s Island to the Belmont Stakes was to leave the island on foot, then find a cab in Astoria, Queens. Somehow, this actually assuaged my fears.

I excitedly told my wife of the plan. “All I have to do is take a train from Yankee Stadium to Harlem, pick up a bus to the island, walk across the East River on I-287, then take a cab through Queens to Belmont Park, which is just east of Hollis and Jamaica!”

“Joke!” she said.

The easy leg of this odyssey is already complete: I successfully navigated the New Jersey Turnpike on a summer Friday, no small feat with shoregoers clogging many exits. Major league soccer did its best to work its charms on a gorgeous Friday evening, treating me to a tight 2-1 Red Bulls victory that featured three more goals than I anticipated seeing.

Weather perfect. Venue gorgeous. Crowd excited. Blogger clueless but willing. Let’s play some soccer! #6sportsSat Jun 11 00:09:05 via MOTOBLUR

Red Bull Arena had everything I could ask for in a venue: wide concourses, great sight lines and ranch dressing dispensers on the condiment tables. The Red Bulls fans were passionate and intense, and a vocal busload of boosters from New England brought pageantry in the form of a drum-and-flag mini-parade through the concourses. I did not bother with the chanting, stomping superfans behind the goalie because they appeared more into being soccer fans than into soccer, carefully mimicking the behavior they saw in World Cup matches.

To each their own. The fans in my corner section, schoolboys with their fathers and fetching collegiate couples, rooted without making a show of rooting. I did not fall in love with the sport, but I saw the attraction, and if I were in charge of a sport that makes a fetish of its deliberate, kid-unfriendly pace (baseball), I would be worried about soccer’s ability to slowly erode the fan base.

Red Bulls vs. Revolution, June 10, 2011.Todd Heisler/The New York TimesRed Bulls vs. Revolution, June 10, 2011.

The trip to Red Bull Arena reminded me why this assignment appealed so much to me, besides my masochistic streak. Sports fandom is becoming increasingly private and personal. High-def television beams pristine images into our homes, and computers place instantaneous analysis and impersonal chat at our fingertips. Even the act of going to games has been sanitized in recent years: the new arenas look and feel like shopping malls, and tailgate parties often come with vegetarian menu alternatives and air-conditioned, commode-equipped trailers.

None of these are bad things, but they take some of the most powerful, visceral experiences away from fans. We start to ask too much of the sports themselves, entertainment and fulfillment-wise, when we remove them from their atmosphere. The best fan experiences are usually communal, and they are often journeys. Whole books have been written about road trips following college football teams or European tours with futból hooligans. To date, no one has written eloquently about watching a ballgame alone in a suburban living room. Our childhood sports memories are usually of trips to the ballpark or arena, even if the pretzels were cold, the parking lots were endless, and Von Hayes was batting cleanup that night.

My goal this weekend is to create some new sports memories, then shape them and share them, to try things I have never tried and find things I would never think to look for. This is not just a New York story, but a story of sports discovery. Maybe an afternoon on Randall’s Island will open my eyes to the beauty of the triple jump. Maybe I will win big at the Belmont. Maybe the views from the R.F.K. Bridge are so breathtaking that they are worth the tight schedule, unpredictable weather, and possibility that I will be hopelessly lost the moment I set foot in Queens.

This journey will be funny at times, but it will never be a joke. I may not find all of my venues, but I am sure I will find something.

Start following Tanier on Twitter: @FO_MTanier.

I’m leavin on a PATH train…don’t know when i’ll be back again #6sportsSat Jun 11 10:00:01 via MOTOBLUR

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