Thursday, July 9, 2009

Remembering Tom Batzold

Those of us who worked with the man we called “Batz” are feeling a profound sense of loss after news of his death yesterday at the much-too-young age of 56 following complications from a stroke.

I first got to know Tom Batzold when I was a sophomore at Syracuse University back in the winter of 1974-75. (Actually, I didn’t meet him in person until I came to Rochester years later. But I felt like I knew him from reading his game stories, advances and features in the Syracuse Post-Standard.)

I was an aspiring newspaper reporter, and I would look for Batz’s by-line every day because his chronicling of SU basketball’s first trip to the Final Four made me a fan of his reporting. He did what good writers do – he made players like “Rocket Man’’ Chris Sease and Jimmy “Bug’’ Williams come to life.

Not long after the Orangemen’s marvelous season, Batz’s by-line disappeared from the Post-Standard. I learned that he had left Syracuse to return home to Rochester to write for Gannett’s afternoon paper, the Times-Union.

I joined the Democrat and Chronicle in January of ’85, and although I was a member of the enemy newspaper, I finally met the man behind the by-line, and we became friends.

Batz and I shared many interests. Each of us had gone to Syracuse, and closely followed the Orange sports programs, particularly basketball and football. We were huge fans of the Yankees (Mickey Mantle, in particular), Wilt Chamberlain and the Beatles. And we loved human-interest and nostalgic sports stories.

In the early 1990s, the staffs of the Times-Union and Democrat and Chronicle merged, and we went from being competitors to colleagues.

Batz was a very creative person. No one was better at coming up with catchy, to-the-point headlines – saying in two words what others needed 10 to articulate. His creativity also was evident in the pages and special sections he helped design. They were fun pages to work on and read. Many of them received national recognition.

Because he was from the area and he got out of the office (something too many editors and reporters no longer do), he was able to gauge the pulse of the community. Batz didn’t need surveys or phony focus groups to determine what interested people. By actually living in this community and having a vested interest in it, he developed a good sense of readership desires. And he didn’t just have his finger on the pulse of sports. He also had the finger on the pulse of politics, business and music. Through the years, he suggested numerous story ideas to other sections of the paper.

His formula for successful sports sections included heavy coverage of the Buffalo Bills, SU basketball (and football back in the day when it was good) as well as the local professional teams, colleges and his baby – high school sports.

Batz would tell us that he was blessed to oversee a veteran sports staff, but there were times when we (me, in particular) could make it challenging. On several occasions, we would lock horns over some newspaper issue – an editing change, story play, etc. But the great thing about Batz was that he never took anything personally. Both parties would blow off steam, then all would be forgotten.

A devoted family man, he would allow me to rearrange my schedule from time to time, so I would be able to coach my son’s baseball team or attend my daughter’s soccer matches. He did things like that with all the staffers because he realized what truly was important.

As a middle manager, Batz also was good at being a lightning rod, and protecting us from the foolish, occasionally petty criticisms of the deep thinkers at the top.

It was a sad day two years ago when health issues and the incessant meddling from above forced Batz to leave his dream job.

But he wound up turning lemons into lemonade. He had been a workaholic, devoting ridiculous hours to the newspaper. These past two years gave him an opportunity to lead a more sane existence and form even closer bonds with his family.

This past winter, he coached the modified boys basketball team at West Irondequoit, and the part-time sports memorabilia dealer was as happy as if he had just come across a ’52 Mickey Mantle card in mint condition. The kids loved Coach Batzold, and he loved them.

They were privileged to have known him.

And so was I.

I’m grateful for all the story ideas he fed me through the years and the great play he gave those stories. And I’m grateful for the assignments, particularly the Olympics in Athens and Beijing that he lobbied for me to have.

But most of all I’m grateful for his friendship.

My thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Pam, and their family.