Jun 1, 2020, 6:11 pm
Time truly does fly by. I was surprised this week to find out it is the 15th anniversary of the infamous Astros tombstone on the front page of the Houston Chronicle. Jake Kaplan of The Athletic interviewed me for it, and his terrific account can be found here. (Warning: You have to be a subscriber.)
The year was 2005, and the Houston Astros were supposed to be World Series contenders. Instead, they started 18-32 and looked very much like a bust. Based on history, they had little shot of accomplishing anything.
June 1 was always kind of benchmark date for the Astros, where we would take stock of the team. As Sports Editor at the time, my job was to come up with creative ways to display content, pass it on to our talented team of writers and graphics designers, then do the same thing every other day of the week.
My legacy will not be for all the great work we did there, awards we won, or talented people we hired or developed. I will always be the Tombstone Guy.
And I am good with that.
First, some context. In 2005, newspapers were still the most relevant media, especially when it came to sports. Talk shows used it for their prep and riffed off what we did. We had hundreds of thousands of readers, millions on Sundays. The internet was starting to take over, but had yet to render newspapers irrelevant. That would happen soon after.
As sports editor, I inherited a Super Bowl caliber staff. My predecessor, Dan Cunningham, had built us into one of the best sports sections in America. Our challenge was to build on that and try to be innovative and creative on a daily basis. From that perspective, we were a rousing success, winning unprecedented national awards. We set trends by adding things like Daniel Negreanu's poker column. We were the first major newspaper (along with the LA Times) to cover MMA on a regular basis. We added fantasy football coverage and tapped into the radio market by adding Lance Zierlein's incredibly popular Z Report. Chron.com became a monster website that covered everything (long before pay walls and slide shows). The idea was to try to attract younger readers.
And we had a world-class staff. Names you would know, like John P. Lopez (now at 610), Richard Justice and Brian McTaggart (now at mlb.com). Jenny Dial-Creech (now at the Athletic). Sam Khan, now at ESPN.com. Plus stalwarts who are still there, like the legendary John McClain and Jerome Solomon, and Joseph Duarte, who still covers UH for the paper. Plus some names you might not know - Jeff Rosen, now sports editor at The Kansas City Star and one of the best in the business. And my top assistants, Charles Crixell and Carlton Thompson, plus the late Joe Conway, who worked his ass off on the website. Not to mention one of the most talented graphic artists I ever worked with, David Jack Browning.
In the ultimately failed quest for younger readers, our group tried a lot of fun and creative designs and ideas on a daily basis. And that is how the tombstone was born.
My routine at the time was drop the kids off at school, hit the gym for two hours (I wasn't always old, fat and ugly) and think of ideas. At some point on a leg machine, I came up with the thought of putting a tombstone on the Astros season. I called our talented baseball writer, Jesus Ortiz, on the way to the office, and pitched the idea. He wasn't crazy about it, so it took some selling. But he eventually embraced it. I also hit up Justice, who laughed at me, but in a good way. He liked it. I often bounced ideas off of him and Solomon in addition to all of our editors.
The next step was our morning meeting, where all the editors from all the sections would get together and discuss that day's paper. The editor at the time, Jeff Cohen, was skeptical to say the least, but he agreed to let us try it. My old boss, Cunningham, gave that wry smirk he was known for, which was his way of saying it was OK for me to look stupid.
The pitch was simple; if the season really is over, no one will remember it. But if they somehow turned it around, it could become a page people talked about. The paper had done something similar a decade before with the "Choke City" Rockets headline, so it was always in the back of my mind that it could backfire, which is what I was hoping for. I wanted attention for the newspaper. I wanted our section to be something people had to talk about each day. I hoped the Astros would turn it around and the thing would take on a life of its own.
And boy, did it. You might remember that in 2005 the Astros went to their first World Series. And we had suddenly made news. Ortiz was widely ripped by fans and blamed for it, but stoically defended it. Lance Berkman called me an "idiot." We made several references to it throughout the season. My proudest moment was watching the broadcast of the World Series on Fox and there was our front page, in front of millions of viewers.
I still get asked if I am embarrassed by it. Hell no. As I told Kaplan, I am proud of it. How many sports front pages make a TV broadcast, other than the "Champions" pages? I was a little known Sports Editor outside of my peers. Now I was the Tombstone Guy.
Some fun facts about the page: The story doesn't really fit the image. Ortiz did a nice job of working in all the historical angles, but the story itself was more positive. The Astros won that night, hence the headline to the right, "Astros find the formula." And in the headline on the tombstone, developed by Steve Schaeffer, the "it's off" was a play on the Astros slogan that year, "It's on."
The fair concern from the bosses (and a lot of the staff) was that if it did go viral, we would be embarrassed as a legitimate news organization. There was definitely some of that backlash later. But in my mind the reward was worth the risk.
One of the great things about having so many talented people around me was we built a team that would challenge my decisions and weren't afraid to call me stupid. I would take all the input, then make a call. We didn't always agree, but it made us a more effective staff. I learned the best way to be successful was to surround yourself with people better than you and they will make you look good. Bill O'Brien could learn a lot from us. Not everyone was on board, and at one point I almost scrapped it. I am glad I didn't.
The only thing that could have made it better? The Astros winning the World Series in 2005 instead of getting swept by the White Sox, which took away some of the shine. Yet people still remain curious about the Tombstone to this day.
Sadly, newspapers began their massive downward spiral shortly after. Just two years later, unwilling to stay on board for staff cuts, I took a buyout and started looking for a new career. Things have worked out pretty well since, with a decent radio show, two more successful sports web sites, a brief teaching career and several books added to my resume. But no one will remember those things.
I will, however, always be the Tombstone Guy. Perhaps they will find a way to put that on my tombstone.