Alger: Writing a 7-year wrong
The I-5 Corridor debuts with a story about baseball, the Oregon Coast and an appreciation for making time.
PORTLAND — LeBron James returned to Cleveland after four years in Miami on a Friday.
The news trickled in on the radio that morning as I drove from Portland down to Florence. I wasn’t the biggest NBA fan, but it was LeBron James, and the news dominated every station driving the two hours south down I-5, then the hour west along Highway 126 to the central Oregon Coast.
Maybe I’d still remember that part of the drive clearly no matter how that day went, but now it’s etched in there as one of those random memories that seemingly stick around from days you don’t want to remember.
I don’t have a lot of regrets in my career. I get things wrong occasionally. I get scooped and am prone to bullheadedness that has now led to me quitting two jobs — shout out The Garden Island — in an industry where it’s hard to keep them.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve trusted my gut. It’s worked so far.
The things I do regret, however, are moments when I feel I’ve wasted people’s time — or even worse —taken advantage of it.
Stories require time and a willingness from often complete strangers to open up about their lives. And on that overcast July day, Jim Dietz had time and stories to tell.
Few from Oregon have lived a fuller baseball life. Born in Eugene in 1939, the now 81-year-old Dietz won 1,230 games in 31 seasons as the head coach of the San Diego State Aztecs. One summer day in 1982 as the coach of the summer league Anchorage Glacier Pilots, he suggested to Mark McGwire that maybe he should leave his 85 mile-per-hour fastball on the mound and focus solely on swinging the bat. He convinced Tony Gwynn to play baseball over basketball, and then eventually handed the keys to the Aztecs program over to the future Hall of Famer when Dietz “retired” in 2002 — though guys like Dietz don’t really ever retire.
I had just finished my first season covering the Oregon baseball team, whose junior varsity program Dietz coached from 1969-1971, and thought I had enough time during the summer to take on a few features before beginning the 2014 Ducks football season. I pitched a story on Dietz, who after SDSU returned to Oregon and founded the Three Rivers Sandblasters American Legion team as an avenue for coastal ballplayers to continue their careers. I love baseball and have an affinity for community stories, and Dietz gave me everything I could have ever wanted.
We met for lunch along the Siuslaw River and talked about hitting and Ted Williams. He took me to the high school diamond, an infield he had dragged that morning, and introduced me to some of the area’s up and coming players. We went back to his 110-year-old house, where he lives with his wife Carol, and rummaged through a garage filled with boxes of baseball bats and milk crates filled with mitts puzzled around a fishing boat. One box had Stan Musial model bats that were 50-plus years old. From another, he pulled out a hickory tree trunk with “Ruth” across the label. The 33-inch, 30.5 ounce Louisville Sluggers with “19” inscribed on top of the barrels were given to him by Gwynn. Game used.
We talked a lot about Gwynn, who had died just a month earlier. And as someone who idolized 1990s Major League Baseball, I ate up every moment of it. I spent about four hours with Dietz, who sent me home with the exact story I wanted and insisted I didn't leave town without a Three Rivers baseball cap. There was a beautiful sunset when I got back to Portland, and I remember texting a few baseball friends about how cool of a day I had just had. I was early in my career. I could get used to days like that.
Then I never wrote the story.
Preseason football coverage came a lot faster than I anticipated. Then the Ducks made a Playoff run that stretched through mid-January, which then led right into basketball season which then led right into another year of making excuses. Eventually, I just became so embarrassed about the thing that I buried the project. My friend Jeff, a former Oregonian sports writer and resident San Diego everything fan, will occasionally bring up the name. Every time he does, I get a pit in my stomach.
Dietz isn’t hurting for press. Every few years the San Diego papers chime in with something more eloquent than I ever would have. And in truth, Dietz probably didn’t even care. Talking and being around baseball has been his life since his days playing infield at Southern Oregon University. My day spent with him wasn’t too far out of his norm.
I left The Athletic nearly seven years to the day of visiting Dietz. And over the last month and a half, I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people I know and don’t know who have reached out, offering everything from their time to their ears. It’s what inspired me to keep writing.
And while I was going to start coverage this week with a few notes about the Ducks — don’t miss our podcast today with guest Ryan Leaf — instead I just want to thank Dietz for his time and for readers who encouraged me to keep telling stories like his.
— Tyson A
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