How I Got Suspended By ESPN

PHOENIX, AZ : A mascot resembling former Arizona Diamondback Randy Johnson greets fans in the stands during the Gatorade All-Star Workout Day at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

This happened almost eleven years ago. There aren't any good guys in this story, including me. Granted, some guys might seem gooder than others. But that's your pick.

It was the middle of September, 2000. I was living in Boston, and between Red Sox games I was writing four or five columns every week for ESPN.com. On this particular day, there was some minor controversy regarding Randy Johnson. The details are now lost to me, but it was something about a lot of strikeouts in one game, and whether some "record" should include only nine-inning outings, or more. As I remember, vaguely.

That's how important the issue was; probably nobody remembers, not even me.

Anyway, I didn't really have a dog in the fight, but my basic take was that the Elias Sports Bureau occupied the logical high ground on this mole hill. But at the suggestion of an editor, I called Steve Hirdt, then (as now) the company's public face, for some clarification.*

* SteveHirdt!

Now, I should mention that there was a bit of a history there. I worked for Bill James from 1989 through 1992. Bill had engaged in a public feud with Elias for some years, basically accusing the Sports Bureau of being both larcenous and incompetent. But that was Bill; I was not generally in a position to rip Elias, and generally I didn't. One notable exception was this ESPN.com column from 1999, in which I carpet-bombed Elias's intellectually bankrupt attempt, over the course of some years, to prove the existence of clutch hitting as an ability.

I don't know ... I might have given Elias another back-handed slap here or there, but it probably wasn't anything serious. Elias was a business partner of ESPN's, and when you work at ESPN (or anywhere else) you are highly discouraged from slapping your business partners. I was lucky to get away with the clutch-hitting thing, and knew it.

Okay, so back to the fall of 2000 ... If memory serves, I didn't get Steve Hirdt's voice-mail; I did leave a message with a secretary (or whoever answered the phone) who said she would pass it along. I waited an hour or two for a return call before publishing the column, which (again) was not critical of Elias; I was basically on their side, or at worst was sympathetic to their rationale.

Shortly afterward, my editor called. Or rather, my editor's boss called. They were yanking my column because I hadn't called Elias. But I had called Elias. My editor's boss called me back a few minutes later. Sorry. Steve Hirdt says you didn't call. Nothing we can do about it. Tough shit.

Today, I am less passionate and impetuous than I was eleven years ago. This isn't a good thing or a bad thing; it just is.

Eleven years ago, my passionate impetuosity resulted in something really stupid: In just a few minutes, I recapped the above on the front page of my Website, with a few choice words for whoever in Bristol didn't take my word above that of Steve Hirdt (who, I was convinced at the time, was lying because he wanted to screw me).

I didn't know that anyone at ESPN would actually see it.

Of course, they see everything.

Another phone call from my editor's boss. Rob, I have to suspend you for two weeks. Why? Because you criticized ESPN.

Momentary panic. Can't find my contract anywhere. Ask HR to send me a copy. There's nothing in there about two-week suspensions; only one-week suspensions, and terminations. Figuring I won't get fired over this, I e-mail editor's boss and hint about calling an employment lawyer. It doesn't take long before another phone call, this time to inform me that, oops, I'll be suspended for only one week.

This seemed to me a non-terrible outcome: I get to keep my really cool job, with a week of unpaid vacation. I spent most of it in Chicago, visiting Wrigley Field a few times and learning that Fenway's a better place to see a baseball game. A month or so later, I finished a book that almost nobody would read. When the playoffs started, I was back on duty, happy to be working and getting paid for it.

Two codas ...

With my contract expiring that winter, I made the pilgrimage to snowy Bristol and sat down with my boss's boss and his boss. I'm absolutely sure there were people at ESPN who would have been perfectly happy to say goodbye to me forever, but I was contrite about the Elias Affair and got the impression I would be offered another contract. Which I was, then and more times in the coming years. Later there was another unfortunate incident, born of my impetuous passions, which didn't result in a suspension but did result in a half-hearted letter of apology, which was rewritten by my (new) editor's (new) boss and posted on ESPN.com with my name on it. That was fun.

Around the same time, I was doing a weekly spot on ESPNews with Brian Kenny. One Tuesday, I was slated to engage in a friendly (I thought) debate with Steve Hirdt, with Kenny as enthusiastic referee.

Steve Hirdt refused to appear on-screen with me. We did it without him.

That afternoon, I emailed Steve Hirdt. Politely. Just wondering what would have been so awful about it.

His response (as I recall it): You know why.

You stay classy, Elias Sports Bureau.

Yeah, I know. Cheap shot. Maybe Steve Hirdt has mellowed. I have.

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