A summertime road trip today will take me and my Suburu on a southbound route past Boston's ancient baseball shrine in the Fens, so rightfully called Fenway Park, and I'll eventually zig-zag through The Bronx (no Yankee Game today), then through Manhattan (to meet-up with a friend) and we’ll head out to Flushing, Queens via the 7-Line to Citi Field to see the Mets play baseball at their beautiful baseball park, adjacent to Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
During that trip, author Rafi Kohan will be signing his new book, "The Arena" at a midtown bookstore.
Kohan is not a legendary sportswriter, weaving tales of days-gone-by when he hob-nobbed with "The Babe," nor has he appeared on SportsCenter or The Sports Reporters. He is a freelance writer who was once a deputy sports editor at The New York Observer. He posted stories to ESPN.com, Men's Journal, GQ and The Wall Street Journal, pedaling sports stories for an editor-in-need of content, the stuff that is the foundation of publications, periodicals and online sites from here to eternity.
So what makes Kohan special? Why is he so special that he's signing his book today to celebrate the work hitting bookstores across the country?
The answer will come much later this evening when Kohan and his closest friends, his editors, mentors and industry execs crack open a few bottles of beer and celebrate Kohan's work, some three-plus years in the making. The answer will come because "The Amazing Sladek" will be there to toast his friend. Yes, the presence of Sladek, a name known to very few in this crazy sports world, is the reason Kohan and his friends and relatives will smile tonight.
Why? Rafi Kohan and "The Amazing Sladek" both cracked the code. They make a living because they can do something different. They've each some up with something so different from that of their peers and they do it so well, they deserve your undivided attention and your $20 bucks.
Sladek is a performer and I refuse to spoil the story that Kohan tells so well in his new book, that I won't write much more, other than to say, you might've seen Sladek during the halftime of an NBA game or even the annual NBA All-Star Game at Toronto a couple years back. Kohan, attempting to do something very different with his sports book, reported a story about Sladek and even took part in one of his acts, at the RAC in Piscatawy, New Jersey none-the-less. Kohan writes for living, while Sladek nearly dies every night for a living.
So often, sports books resulting from a year's worth of travel tell a chronological path of facts and recommendations. Some provide ranking programs or "Insider" fan-friendly travel or food recommendations a la Fodor's or Frommers. Quite frankly, these books lay on the shelves until uninformed aunts, uncles or grandma might scoop them up at Christmas to be hung by the chimney, with care, for their beloved sportsfan.
Not so when you pick-up and rip through "The Arena."
"Ultimately, you can trace the project back to the fact that I’ve always been a sports fan," said Kohan during an entertaining phone call last week. "I loved going to games, but, for me, it was never just about the game itself. It’s been about the other stadium experiences that make it such an exciting day.
"Whether it’s interacting with the guys that are selling ‘knock-off’ tee shirts on the sidewalk, or just standing in line to buy a hot dog, or having a vendor bark at you in the stands or watching the grounds crew do their work. Those sorts of characters, those creatures in every corner of the stadium always appealed to me. They felt like such a part of the experience, I just didn’t know that much about. This opportunity came about. I could take a year, travel around the country and really dedicate it to paying attention to everything BUT the game,” said Kohan.
That aspect of Kohan's book is important to note: Most fans experience a sporting event through the lens of the result of the game, the team's place in the standings or the performance of their favorite players. Sports books are often results driven.
"I started working with an editor at a publishing house at Liveright which is an imprint of W.W. Norton & Company," said Kohan. "She’d always been a huge sports fan, fascinated with stadiums and all. We hashed it out and asked ourselves what was it about stadiums that we would want to explore? It was all the things that ultimately made it into the book. They delved into "the economy, the differences between new and old stadiums, fan behavior and fan entertainment" and even looked at "what happens to these places after the games move on," he asked himself before the reporting began.
And reporting he did!
"As far as I know, I’ve never read anything like this," said Kohan, in an honest and humble manner. "It’s crazy how much I learned by reporting this book. And, I’ve now forgotten more stuff than I knew to begin with. Things big and small. From mind-blowing stats like the number of hot dogs they serve at an All-Star Weekend to funny, quirky things, like the fact that they called the original artificial turf at the Louisiana SuperDome, “Mardi-Grass.”
"No reason you would know it and no reason you need to know it," he said. "There’s so much texture in each of these worlds. It was super-fun. I never knew what I was going to learn, the more I dug. I didn't know where it was going to take me. I was hanging out with the grounds-keepers in Atlanta and the next thing I knew, I’m on a 100-mile road trip to the southern coast of Alabama to a sod farm to get some grass for the stadium."
You can just imagine the characters Kohan intersected with as he made his rounds.
"There are characters everywhere you go," he noted, "but there are a few that stick out and the one that I opened the book with, “The Mayor of Lambeau Field,” is this middle-aged guy who works at the post office in Green Bay and dresses up to look like the 'Willie Wonka of Packers fans.' He made me take an oath as a Lambeau Field virgin as he presided over me."
Among the characters, "The Mayor of Lambeau" sticks out, but I was struck by stories that simply aren't reported.
"Some of the guys while I met while I was ticket-scalping in Cleveland stand out, all the guys on the streets obviously stand-out," Kohan said. "One guy, with a heart of gold, Big Mike, stands out. So many shut me out, at first. Why wouldn’t you? A guys shows up with a notebook, so they all say, ‘why don't you get the hell out of here?” "But, I ended up striking up a friendship with the guy and by chance, the circumstances were so that I could actually do something nice for him. I had a couple tickets that I stumbled into and he had only one ticket left and he needed to sell a pair. He had a better ticket and I said, ‘Here, take my pair.” After that, everywhere he went, he invited me into the fold. ‘This is my dude.’
"So, I got to hang out with the scalpers for the next 10 days and learn the tricks of the trade," said Kohan. "I met a guy named Raymond Smith, a beer vendor at the SuperDome, and his story went much deeper as he was there and spent the whole time of Hurricane Katrina working there. He's had a rough time since Katrina, as his family is scattered all over and he had some tough times dealing with all of that - some PTSD-type things. He has to go back to The SuperDome every Sunday and strap the beer tray around his neck and that’s the only way he can make a living right now. "It’s sad," said Kohan, weaving the story so well I could see it myself. "He’s not a colorful character story, it’s sad, but he’s the guy serving you the beer at a Saints game, so there’s some real human stories, as well.
“Those kinds of human stories are not going to make the six o’clock SportsCenter but they are the heart of all of this stuff. They are the people who are there and why they’re there is always an interesting story. Do they want to be there or do they have to be there?
Interesting to say the least, gut-wrenching as well. But, what was Kohan's total experience really like? What did he take away from the project beside some edited galleys, great memories and a 401-page book that you need to buy to finish in one summer weekend?
"I have a number of overall take-aways from the project," explained Kohan. "I did this on a shoe-string budget and stayed with friends, stayed with some family. I stayed with strangers who have become friends. I stayed with the Uncle of a friend of a cousin of my wife. I stayed with the in-laws of the brother of a friend of mine. And some times, I spent 10 days or two weeks with these people. They became friends, so there’s a ton of people scattered all over the country who I truly believe I have a legacy of friendship with and many of the people in the book.
"In fact, “The Amazing Sladek" will be at my book-signing and party (tonight)!"
After you read "The Arena," you'll understand the importance of the relationship forged between two sports innovators and just how important that fact remains.