Extra Bases

Goodbye, Old Friend

Posted by Jim Mandelaro

When I was an aspiring sports writer in the early 1980s, I was afraid of Rick Woodson.

I had never met the man, but I read his columns on the Bills religiously, and they often were filled with venom. I can understand it now; the Bills stunk. But back then, all I thought was how miserable and angry this guy was.

One Saturday in 1982, I visited my brother Doug in the Times-Union newsroom. Doug was a reporter at the time, and I was getting ready to join the rival Democrat and Chronicle as a part-timer. I was eager to see where the great Bob Matthews sat. My brother pointed to a desk in the far corner of the newsroom.

“What about Woodson?” I asked derisively.

“Rick Woodson?” my brother said. “He’s one of the nicest guys in the newsroom.”

My scoff could be heard at the Kodak Tower, I’m sure. But as I came to find out, brother knows best. Rick became a colleague after I switched to the T-U sports department in 1986. Much more importantly, he became a good friend. And the first time I confessed my tale to him of poor first impressions, he laughed and said in that Southern drawl, “Man! You must’ve thought I was Hitler!”

Rick died Tuesday at age 72. A vicious lung disease called pulmonary fibrosis took him in just four months. His loving wife, Beth, held him as he passed on at Rochester General.

We should all be so lucky to have a loyal soulmate like Beth guide us into the next world. We should all be so lucky to have a friend like Wally Rugg, Rick’s buddy for 40 years and our former colleague at the late and great Times-Union. Wally lives in Binghamton  but  drove up for a few days last week to stay at Rick’s bedside, then returned again Tuesday morning to say goodbye. He’ll be back this weekend for calling hours and the memorial service, because that’s how amazing people operate.

I am sad – and angry – because Rick was so full of life. He loved good food, good games, good fun. I can’t tell you how many people have tweeted, posted on Facebook or emailed me about what a gentleman he was.

Nothing made Rick happier than a beer and a hot dog at Frontier Field on a sultry summer evening, watching the hometown Red Wings with Beth.

Rick never failed to visit us in the press box. He’d tap me on the shoulder and smile, tell a story or two, then look down and say “Well, Beth’s down there. Talk to you guys later. Scribe to daylight, Jimmy!”

“Scribe to daylight” was his favorite phrase. It was a takeoff on Vince Lombardi’s “Run to daylight.”  It meant “write the hell out of it.”

“What I will always remember most about Rick is his love for life and the positive outlook he carried with him every day,” said Chuck Hinkel, the Wings’ former director of media relations.

Chuck is another tremendous person. Last weekend, knowing the end likely was near, he visited Rick in the ICU at Rochester General. Chuck’s own mom was there, but he selflessly gave a few minutes of his time to comfort Beth and visit his buddy.

I first met Rick when he was married, and became close friends when he was divorced. I still remember when he talked about meeting Beth  and how his eyes lit up. Any mention of Beth would usually result in the same reply: “She’s as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside.”

I went to their wedding. My wife and I visited their home twice for dinner. Beth and Rick came to our house for dinner, and for a farewell party for colleague Scott Pitoniak.

Rick would be so angry that he didn’t get to live into his golden years with Beth. And he would be so sad for Beth, but so lucky that he knew her and loved her.

My most precious memories of Rick are my early years at the T-U, 1986-92, the happiest years of my career. It was a small, ultra-talented sports staff led by the great Frank Cardon and Mike Ryan. Often the writers would read copy in the morning and help put out the section. We had to get up at 4 in the morning, but we were usually gone by 11. It was usually a one-shot deal, since all the games had been over for hours. Our deadline was around 9 a.m., at which time Rick and I would saunter down to the cafeteria on the first floor and order breakfast. We’d bring it back up and eat while proof-reading the pages. On Friday mornings, we were out of there by 10 or 11 a.m., with no worries until the following Monday.

It was a tough life.

Often, I would join Rick and Wally (then our assistant sports editor) on Fridays for lunch at Maria’s, a quaint Mexican restaurant in Village Gate. We loved the burritos there, but mostly we loved the camaraderie.

Never mind that Rick was 22 years older than me and had already built a famed career before I had even cut my journalistic teeth. He befriended me and made me feel like one of the gang – a gang that included the great Bob Matthews, the legendary baseball writer Billy Koenig (also gone before his time), the walking encyclopedia of local sports Tom Batzold (ALSO gone before his time) and the still-great Leo Roth.

When the Times-Union and the Democrat and Chronicle staffs merged, everyone had to apply for beats. I remained with the Red Wings. Rick was offered the Syracuse football and basketball beats. But this was when we still traveled to road games. Rick was in his 50s and wanted no part of it. So he was put on the desk, reading copy late into the night (“It’s past my bedtime,” he would often remark).

I still remember both of us coming in at 5 p.m. one Christmas and just staring at each other and shaking our heads. What happened to our cake hours at the T-U?

Eventually, he left the paper and opened his own business – The Golf Tee – where patrons could drive golf balls into the field or baseballs into the wall on the pitching machines. He began teaching journalism at The College at Brockport and wrote a weekly sports column for the Rochester Business Journal.

Rick was fiercely loyal to family and friends. He would beam when talking about his kids. His son, Rick Jr., was trying to make it as a pro golfer and Rick would tell me every time we saw each other, “Did you hear what Rick did in Miami?” (Or Houston. Or anywhere).

He loved a clever line in a sports column. He detested the misuse of words. Like when someone said “Derek Jeter had his hitting streak snapped at 18 tonight.” Rick would shake his head and say, “What did Jeter do, tell the Indians, please snap my streak?”

For many, he was known as “Rock.” That’s because when his first story was published in the Times-Union in 1977, his name mistakenly appeared as “Rock Woodson.”

Welcome to Rochester! I can still hear Bob Matthews yell “Rocky Boy!” when he saw Woodson in the Frontier Field press box.

I’ll never forget one Friday in 1992. I was approaching my 30th birthday, and Rick and Wally were giving me the business over lunch at Maria’s.

‘I’ll tell you what,” Rick said, turning serious. “Now that you’re 30, you won’t believe how fast time flies.”

I believe it. I’m 50 now, just a couple of years younger than Rick was when he made that statement. And the time, the precious time, has flown.

Rick loved this time of year. March Madness. Baseball. The Masters just around the corner.

He was famous for telling the same stories – usually about his dealings with pampered athletes – over and over. One time, he asked Jim Kelly for an interview. Kelly was reading the paper and casually said “I’m reading, boy.”

Rick was incensed that someone almost young enough to be his son would speak that way. He pushed the paper away.

“Boy! YOU’RE the boy!’’ he told the future Hall of Famer. “I’m the man!”

He got sick of Bruce Smith being a jerk to the print media and turning on the charm for the TV cameras.

“Guess who’s gonna call you for an interview in 20 years, Bruce,” he said. “NOBODY!”

Another time, in Hawaii, he wrote a scathing column on Indiana coach Bobby Knight. The Hoosiers were one of eight teams invited to the Rainbow Classic. Rick’s headline – which he suggested – was “Knight Makes This 7/8 of a Classic Field.”

The next day, Rick was in the media room when he was read the riot act by Nancy Knight, Bobby’s wife at the time. Fortunately for him, MR. Knight wasn’t around.

I would always urge him to put his best material in a book. And in 2007, he did. He self-published Words of Woodson, a collection of columns from his early days in Shreveport to his later days at the Rochester Business Journal.

When I heard last week that Rick was gravely ill, I began searching the Web for some of his newer columns. And his words haunted me.

He wrote about the need to go play the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, where golf was invented centuries ago – something he crossed off his bucket list last summer.

“I want to play the Old Course while I can still remember doing it,” he said. “It will be the only time in my life when I will smile after making a few double bogies. At least I can say I was there. And I can’t wait!”

He spoke of watching the Super Bowl just one month ago.

“I’ve never missed one, and I won’t miss it next year.”

He talked of how excited he was about the 2013 golf season in Rochester, with the LPGA Championship and the PGA Championship coming to town. And he wrote this:

“I can’t wait for baseball to get here, along with some warm weather. Optimism is gushing from Frontier Field, where our Red Wings finished at .500 for the first time since 2008. It will be great to get back there without a winter coat and watch the Red Wings make a serious run at the playoffs, which I think they will.

I am convinced there is a great, lucky ’13 ahead!”

Rick loved life and wanted to live. He was, to use a word mentioned Tuesday by his brother-in-law and golfing buddy Terry Quinn, “vibrant.”

As another great former colleague Frank Bilovsky wrote on Facebook, “If you didn’t enjoy Rick’s company, you didn’t enjoy life.”

Writing his obit Tuesday was one of the harder things I’ve had to do. But I had to do it. I just knew Rick would want it that way. And I heard from so many great people. Rich Funke, as classy as they come, called me from Florida. Carol Ritter, who is dealing with her own personal crisis, e-mailed me Tuesday night. Sebby Wilson Jacobson, an editor at the Times-Union and then the D&C, wrote this morning. I heard from people I haven’t talked to in years, and people I’ve never met. Every one of them loved Rick.

So did I.

Rest in peace, pal. I can hardly believe you’re gone.