Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A little bit of this, and a little bit of that...

Editor's note: For the ND-BYU preview, see below.

That's how Cleveland sportswriter Hal Lebovitz starts his Sunday notes columns. That is, until a few weeks ago. First, on October 9, there's a note in the paper that Hal (he's known by one name around here) is on vacation this week. No big deal, I thought, a devout Jew is simply observing Rosh Hashana. Then, October 16 rolls around, and there's still no column. Ah, so he really is on vacation. Then, Tuesday night, I get the news at my softball game: "Hey, did you hear Hal Lebovitz passed away?" As it turns out, he wasn't on vacation at all. He was finishing his battle with cancer - a battle he felt that he needn't burden his readers with.

As I've always been a sports nerd, I started reading the weekly "Ask Hal" column at a young age. In it, readers would write in seeking answers on obscure sports rulings. I always tried to guess the correct ruling before I read Hal's answer, and of course I loved it when Hal added a trivia question of his own to be answered the following week. As it turns out, I'm not the only person who started reading "Ask Hal" at a young age. Starting in the late '50s, "Ask Hal, the Referee" was published in The Sporting News, where it gathered fans like Bob Costas. That's why, whenever an unusual play happened during a nationally televised sporting event, it was commonplace for the broadcast booth to give Hal a call for an explanation on the ruling.

Over time, I graduated from "Ask Hal" (although it was always my favorite) to Hal's Monday feature article and massive Sunday notes columns. If you're a sports fan from Northeast Ohio, chances are the first thing you read Sunday morning was Hal. He was a true Cleveland fan. Twice he used his position as sports editor of the Plain Dealer to convince Indians ownership to stay in Cleveland. He was good friends with Art Modell untill the creation of the "Baltimore (Ugh) Ravens." He didn't talk to Modell from 1995 until his death. He was also a Buckeye fan - especially recently, when he could beam with pride about fellow Glennville High alumni Troy Smith and Ted Ginn, Jr.

People liked Hal because you just had to respect him. He'd been there - as a player, coach, and ref, so you knew that he knew what he was talking about. In high school, my favorite sportswriter was Rick Reilly, probably because those page-length articles were just right for my attention span. In college, my Simmons-inspired ramblings led to the creation of this site. Of course, I've been a huge Peter Gammons fan for a while now, but Hal preceeded Gammons in the Baseball Hall of Fame by a full five years. As I became a writer (or, as I thought I was becoming a writer), I realized that Hal was the type of writer I wanted to emulate. (In fact, I don't normally like bringing up deaths on the site. Why mention celebrity deaths as if they're more important than family deaths? And, why mention family deaths when that's a personal issue? But, I may not be here without Hal, so he's definitely worth the tribute.) He saw players as people - not as "targets" of hard-hitting interview questions. For that reason, he befriended many players, including those who wouldn't normally open up to the media. That doesn't mean he wouldn't criticize someone when he disagreed with them. Hal called 'em like he saw 'em, he just happened to like most of what he saw.

I had one chance to meet Hal - and I didn't take it. I had great seats to an Indians game in the summer of '03. There, sitting down further up in my section, was Hal himself. I thought of walking up to shake his hand, but I decided not to bother him. A year later, I asked for The Best of Hal Lebovitz, a collection of his best works, for my birthday. My grandmother wrote him a letter asking for an autographed copy. He wrote her back saying that I could send my book to him and he would gladly sign it. I never did, for whatever reason. I will always keep the note, though, handwritten on a piece of stationary that bears a drawing of his face. It's easy to imagine that, over the years, Hal has sent out thousands of handwritten notes, personal answers to "Ask Hal" questions.

Finally, I leave you with some of the best stories from the man who could compare Grady Sizemore to Tris Speaker like he saw both of them play yesterday.
-His signature story was Never Cut a Boy.
-As a young boy, Hal was a hotdog vendor at League Park, the original home of the Indians. Stationed behind home plate, he said that Babe Ruth would order about a dozen hotdogs per game from him.
-On time, Hal wrote an article ripping Ted Williams for ignoring his teammates after hitting a home run. The next day in Cleveland, after Williams homered, he shook hands with the next batter, the bat boy, and a very confused umpire and catcher. Williams then pointed up into the press box and yelled, "How was that, you SOB!"

So, in the tradition of Hal:
Stay well and see you somewhere, I hope.