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Original Issue

Rookie Meets Reaper

I traveled more than 70,000 miles in 1990, my rookie year as a sportswriter, and Death was my constant companion on the road.

This was quite trying, especially when Death got the aisle seat on the airplane. But I eventually accepted the grim presence and was even grateful for the extra pair of eyes when I couldn't find my rental car in the Oakland Coliseum parking lot.

Looking back, I shouldn't have been surprised that the road didn't rise up to meet me. Last spring, Milwaukee batting coach Don Baylor counseled me in the Brewers' clubhouse. "I tell young players and young writers the same thing," said the 20-year veteran of the major leagues. "The travel isn't easy. You better learn to pace yourself."

And, indeed, I have learned many things since I began living in hotels. I am now a Biblical scholar. I know the life story of J. Willard Marriott as if it were my own. Inspired by the intricately folded end squares of toilet paper that invariably hang in my bathrooms, I have taken a keen interest in the Japanese art of origami.

I did not learn, however, to pace myself. The pace was simply too quick. By the time the pennant races took shape, I was making Jack Kerouac look like an agoraphobe.

Take June 29. That morning, in pursuit of the red-hot Montreal Expos, I flew from ORD to YUL (Chicago to Montreal, that is; I now know the three-letter luggage-tag abbreviations for airports as I once knew my state capitals). Upon arriving in Montreal, I picked up my luggage, went through customs, exchanged currency (Is that Gene Wilder on the $10 bill?), hailed a cab, rode downtown, checked into the Sheraton, retrieved a waiting message ("Call the office"), called the office, was told to fly immediately to New York and hook up with the red-hot Mets instead of the red-hot Expos, checked out eight minutes after checking in ("Did you enjoy your stay, Mr. Rushin?"), got back into the same cab, returned to the airport, exchanged currency (That is Gene Wilder!), went through customs, flew to New York and cabbed from LGA to Shea Stadium next door, where a night game was in progress.

Only the cabbie couldn't find the Shea parkway exit, and it cost me $18 and 2‚Öì innings to cover the half mile from the airport, which really isn't all that surprising when you consider that:

•In September, Oakland's Jose Canseco was taken to Shea Stadium after he had told a New York hack to take him to Yankee Stadium. Canseco arrived in the Bronx two hours after leaving his Manhattan hotel. The fare: $60. "And the language," Canseco said of the driver. "It was atrocious." The kind of language that would turn Tommy Lasorda crimson, as Seattle's Randy Johnson discovered...

• April, when the Mariners pitcher, feeling nauseated, also eschewed the team bus in favor of taking a cab from his hotel to Yankee Stadium. Mistake. The heady mix of his flu and the forest of miniature-pine-tree air fresheners dangling before him caused Johnson to reupholster the taxi's backseat. He arrived at the stadium too ill to carry out his scheduled interview with a reporter from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED FOR KIDS. The subject: "The Worst Day I Ever Had."

The Worst Day I Ever Had? On the road? In 1990? June 7 comes to mind. Thai's when Death came knocking at the door of my Omaha hotel room. This was more than I could say for Housekeeping, which earlier had burst in unannounced while I was watching Spectravision in my underwear.

I was in Omaha to cover the College World Series. It was a Thursday morning when I sat bolt upright in bed, awakened by a tornado siren, which startled me, as I hadn't requested a wake-up siren. Still, it wasn't the first time a hotel had awakened me indiscriminately, oblivious to time and the sign on my doorknob. I reflexively returned to sleep.

Seconds later, like the seat backs and tray tables that now equip my subconscious, I returned to an upright position. In a sweat, I recalled that a twister had devastated parts of Colorado earlier in the week. Across town at the Sheraton, a member of the Georgia Bulldogs told his roommate, "We have five or 10 minutes before we die."

I was hustled by hotel security from my fifth-floor room into the lobby restaurant, where guests ducked under tables, stood in doorways and crouched beneath countertops. Having eaten there the night before, I immediately sought protection beneath a basket of dinner rolls. And though a tornado never did touch down, I knew that I hadn't cheated Death, but had merely put him off for another month or so.

In that way, Death wasn't so different from the woman in charge of my American Express bill. In fact, when Death tailed me on a Texas highway in July, I thought at first that it was a hit man that AmEx had dispatched from its Phoenix office.

But this was Death, who posed as a kindly septuagenarian driving the hotel van and insisted I ride with him rather than walk one mile to Arlington Stadium. After a tenth of a mile, it began raining the way you read about in the Old Testament. After two tenths of a mile, the van slipped into a continuous, high-speed series of 360's. At three tenths, the highway curved and we shot off it like an un-tracked slot car. After the van hit an embankment and stalled, but before the color returned to my toe knuckles, the driver sighed and turned to me. "Damn brakes," he said, "never have worked."

When, a month later, Brewers third baseman Gary Sheffield mysteriously checked into an Arlington hospital for treatment of "exhaustion," I immediately suspected Shef had ridden with my man in the van. (Either that, or he hadn't heeded the advice of his batting coach.)

Anyway, on my fateful day in Arlington, I was going to see Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan attempt to win his 300th game. But Ryan failed, perhaps still feeling the effects of his June trip to Seattle, where a cabdriver managed to jam Ryan's right thumb while opening the door for him.

Unlike Ryan, who survived Seattle with all his digits, I left little pieces of me wherever I traveled. In Cincinnati I left my apartment keys in the Riverfront Stadium press box. I didn't realize this until I returned to my office in New York, where I was forced to spend the night, and where I was awakened at 5:30 a.m., on the 18th floor of the Time & life Building, ogled by window washers doing their biennial squeegeeing.

San Francisco? I left a shirt. "Due to a manufacturer's defect," I was told by a woman at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, my shirt had "disintegrated" at the laundry. Thank god, I thought, that I wasn't wearing the shirt when it happened.

It was at that same hotel, during the World Series, that I ate a $13.75 room-service hamburger. And while if was a damn tasty burger, and it did come with its very own jar of Grey Poupon, I was nevertheless outraged: I had ordered a cheeseburger.

Besides, the meal was too expensive to be covered by my per diem meal allowance. If this sounds like a petty concern, it is precisely the sort of thing that can set a man off at the end of an interminable season on the road.

Which is why I have no doubt that Pittsburgh centerfielder Andy Van Slyke spoke with complete candor after the sixth game of the National League playoffs, when the Pirates were eliminated by Cincinnati. Van Slyke, sitting glumly in the visitors' clubhouse at Riverfront, was asked what had been his single greatest memory of the Pirates' exhilarating 1990 season.

He did not consider the question lightly, pausing long and stroking his chin before answering. "I will always remember," Van Slyke finally said, "how much our meal money increased this year."

Which, I submit to my expense office, is my wish for 1991.