Over the past 31 years, how many Ohioans have dribbled their scrambled eggs all over Hal McCoy's name? How many have spilled coffee all over the type, or accidentally smeared muffins into it?
This isn't to say that they're sloppy eaters in Ohio. No sir.
Rather, this is simply to say that, for more than three decades, Hal McCoy has been more essential at breakfast tables throughout southern Ohio than Eggo or Aunt Jemima. And as his revered byline moves on into the writers' wing in Cooperstown during Hall of Fame induction ceremonies Sunday, it is important to note that during these 31 years, McCoy has been more consistent than breakfast, too.
|Hal McCoy says he would've quit if not for Aaron Boone's encouraging words.(AP)|
He is the dean of the major league's beat writers, now into his third decade of serving avid baseball fans within range of the Dayton Daily News or its website, peppering them with inside information, amusing anecdotes and breaking stories. He misses a game about as often as most other writers miss a meal, and the chances of him missing a story are even slimmer.
Which is made all the more remarkable this summer by the inconvenient little matter that, just weeks before spring training this year, Hal McCoy essentially went blind.
"I've learned to adjust, pretty much," McCoy said Thursday from his usual locale, the Great American Ball Park press box, where he was covering -- who else? -- the Reds and Pittsburgh. "What I did pick up in spring training after 31 years of covering baseball, what I didn't realize and should have, is that when you hear the crack of the bat, we all follow the ball -- but now, I watch the hitter.
"The hitter invariably will watch the direction he hits the ball. Where the hitter looks is where I look. That way, I see which way the ball goes. Then, I watch the fielders."
And you thought navigating the beer lines at your local stadium was difficult.
"If it's a ground ball or a line drive, I can pick it up," McCoy said. "If it's a fly ball, I have no chance."
He's covered darn near every Reds game since 1973, writing all the heartwarming stories involving Sparky Anderson and the Big Red Machine and the Reds' Cinderella 1990 World Series run, and all the ugly stories involving Pete Rose and Marge Schott. Schott, by the way, had him banned from Riverfront Stadium's press box more often than the guards were able to keep Schottzie out.
Then two years ago, during a Cincinnati-St. Louis game, McCoy had a stroke in his left eye and essentially lost his vision. Being that he always said he'd cover the Reds until the day his head landed on his laptop and he stopped breathing, this didn't deter him much.
Doctors diagnosed ischemic optic neuropathy, and told him that there was only a 15 percent chance of it moving over and attacking his good eye.
Then he woke up last Jan. 23 -- and damned if the vision in his right eye wasn't blurred. He could see dark, fuzzy images, but nothing was very clear. He knew immediately.
"I told my wife, 'I can't do this anymore. It's here. I hit the big lottery -- the other 15 percent,'" said McCoy, who first started at the Dayton Daily News in 1962.
Nadine McCoy, though, wasn't about to watch her husband wild-pitch his passion to the backstop that easily, though.
"She refused to let me quit," McCoy said. "She said, 'What are you going to do, sit here around the house feeling sorry for yourself?'"
So he figured, heck yes, that's good advice. He would fight this.
Then, the first time he got behind the wheel of his car, he totaled it. Fortunately, he walked away from the accident OK.
Wisely, he hasn't driven since.
That was one of about 1,000 little moments when his instinct said, "I can't do this." And others who loved him answered back, "Yes, you can."
After his ophthalmologist handed Hal and Nadine some papers diagramming his eyes shortly after that Jan. 23 nightmare, they headed over to see his boss, Frank Corsoe, the sports editor of the Dayton Daily News. On the diagrams, perfect vision was represented in white, blurred vision in gray and blindness in black.
The diagrams of McCoy's eyes were mostly black.
He told Corsoe he'd probably retire, and both men burst into tears -- right there in the sports department office. Finally, Corsoe -- like Nadine -- insisted that McCoy give it a try.
"If not, you can become a columnist," Corsoe told him.
But McCoy didn't want to become a columnist.
He wants to write baseball.
"That's my life," he said. "That's me."
So he packed up and set off for spring training -- despite the fact that his world had gone dark. And that was just what he could see, above his waist. When he's looking straight ahead, he can't see anything below waist-level -- blurry or not.
"Nadine told friends she expected me back within a week," McCoy said. "She watched me running into tables and chairs in our own house, where I know where everything is."
When he landed in the Sarasota, Fla., airport, another moment quickly came that made him consider quitting: He couldn't see his luggage.
And when he finally made it through that ordeal, there was something else the next morning: Standing in the Reds' clubhouse, among men he's known for years, he couldn't see more than a few feet in front of him.
He told infielder Aaron Boone of his predicament, again mentioning the word "retire."
And you know what happened? Boone sat McCoy down on the spot.
"You are not going to just quit," Boone told him. "I'll help you get through this. We'll help you get through this. If you need help, ask."
To this day, McCoy says he would have quit that day if not for Boone.
|Barry Larkin and the Reds honored Hal McCoy during a game this week.(AP)|
"I've gotten a lot of credit for keeping him going, or whatever," Boone said at the -- appropriately enough -- All-Star Game in Chicago last week. "I wish I could take credit for doing such a noble thing.
"But he came to spring training that first day, and I've been friendly with Hal for years, and we began exchanging barbs. Then he told me about his situation. He didn't know if he'd be able to keep doing this.
"I said, 'No, that's not good enough.' I didn't realize what a profound effect it would have on him."
There were others. Tony Jackson, beat man for the Cincinnati Post, drove McCoy everywhere he needed to go during the spring -- including every road game. Several players checked up on McCoy. Commissioner Bud Selig sought him out.
With about two weeks remaining in spring training, McCoy told his boss that he thought he could do it, but there was one major obstacle. He lives in Dayton, about a 75-minute drive from the ballpark. And he couldn't drive.
"Don't worry about that," Corsoe told him. "We'll get you a driver."
And they have, for every home game -- from home to Cincinnati in the afternoon, and from Cincinnati back home after his final story is filed around midnight ET. Early in the season, newspaper employees took turns behind the wheel. When school ended and a summer intern joined the sports department, that became one of his jobs.
Wait until corporate bean counters who specialize in downsizing and cutting costs hear that one!
"I can do this because I've got a lot of great people helping me," McCoy said.
Airports are the worst. Sometimes McCoy flies with other writers, but often he's on his own schedule. He still can't see his luggage, so his wife ties a big, white bow around the handles. On the days when the airport baggage people are gentle with the luggage, things are easier on McCoy. When they rough it up a little bit and the bows fall off, he usually must wait until all of the other luggage has been claimed. Then he can closely examine the remaining pieces, taking his time, in order to identify his.
Already this season, he tripped and fell down a down escalator in the Denver airport, opening up a pretty good gash on a knee.
"What ticked me off the most was that it was my favorite pair of jeans, and it tore open the knee," he said.
Because National League ballparks have pretty much become a second home to McCoy over the years, he's had a relatively easy time navigating those. But when the Reds played a series against Montreal in Puerto Rico in April, that didn't go so well.
He gashed open his head on a car trunk while attempting to dump his laptop computer inside. The cut bled profusely, so when he walked into the clubhouse, he went directly to the Cincinnati trainer for care.
"As luck would have it, the first person to walk into the trainer's room was Aaron Boone," McCoy said. "He just looked at me and shook his head."
His doctors have told him that stress adversely affects what vision he does have. So while he sometimes stumbles around airports and new ballparks, fortunately, he's always been a whiz on deadline.
"His writing this year is as good as it's ever been," Corsoe said. "It's focused. He's so good. He's so good on deadline, too. That's the beauty of it."
Said Boone: "He has his finger on the heartbeat of our club as much as he ever has. It's nice to have good people in the game."
Which cuts straight to the heart of this entire story. Really, if McCoy wasn't such a Hall of Famer as a person, we'd most likely be writing the end of his story with Sunday's Hall of Fame induction. Who would want to help a mope? Which players would have time over the course of 31 years to assist some egotistical hotshot looking only to make a name for himself?
The worst thing about the timing of this whole ordeal has been that it struck him barely a month after he was named as the winner of the 2002 J.G. Taylor Spink Award that will land him in the writers' wing of the Hall of Fame on Sunday.
What's stressed him out far more than any deadline this year has been the fear that he won't say hello to somebody because he can't see them ... and then that person will walk away muttering about how the Hall of Famer big-timed him.
But if that's his concern, what McCoy doesn't quite understand here is that any of us who know him would never, ever think of that -- and if anybody who knows him heard someone else muttering, they'd quickly set him straight.
"Some people say Hal is such a nice guy that they don't even realize they're giving him a news story," Corsoe said. "But he's not a homer. He's hard-hitting. He's got sass. He's got juice, too."
And speaking of juice, if Corsoe has heard it once, he's heard it a thousand times. When he's out of the office, whenever someone discovers that he's the sports editor of the Dayton Daily News, the response invariably comes back:
"Oh, I start my morning off with Hal McCoy!"
"I'm so proud of him," Corsoe said. "Everybody's so proud of him.
"It would be so easy for him to not do this, but he just loves it."
McCoy, of course, is uncomfortable with those who nominate him for sainthood.
"Really, I'm not an inspiration," he said. "I'm just a stubborn old goat. I did it selfishly, because I wanted to do it. But people with vision problems have e-mailed me and told me I'm an inspiration, so then I got to the point where I thought if I quit, I'm letting a lot of people down."
So his plan is still to cover baseball until that one day in the future when his head crashes onto his laptop keyboard. He's looking beyond this year, into next year. Why stop just when he's figured out how to cover the game blind? This latest chapter of his Hall of Fame career is just beginning.
He finished writing his Cooperstown speech at home Wednesday morning. He practiced it in his office, then practiced it on his wife. About halfway through that, the tears began flowing.
The way he figures it, there's only one way possible for him to hold it all together when he's up there at the podium Sunday afternoon: The sight of loved ones -- both family and friends -- won't make him cry.
"I won't be able to see anybody else in the audience," he said. "That's the good thing. I won't have to look and see (Nadine) or friends.
"Maybe I'll make it, but I doubt it."