The Travelin’ Man goes to Brooklyn-part I
Thursday, April 9: I don’t know about other frequent fliers but, for me, each travel day creates its own narrative. Some (but not enough) are trouble-free while others spawn all kinds of unexpected adventures. They can occur inside the airport (multiple gate changes, delayed departures, canceled flights and their aftermath, etc.), in the air (severe turbulence, “interesting” seatmates and peripheral passengers) or getting to and from one’s destination (detours that throw off GPS-guided directions and, in one case, a dead battery in my rental car). Even after a decade of flying, I believe I have yet to experience every variable that the Traveling Fates can conjure. Being a half-full thinker, that means that I’ll have even more Travelin’ Man stories to tell.
Today produced one such tale.
Let’s start at the beginning. I had known for several weeks that I’d be working a “ShoBox” tripleheader topped by junior middleweights Frank Galarza and Sheldon Moore. The venue: The Aviator Sports Complex in Brooklyn, a semi-regular locale during the days when ESPN aired Wednesday and Friday night shows but one I hadn’t visited in several years. That’s because, according to BoxRec.com, the Aviator has staged only two boxing shows since Nov. 2013 and just 11 since Aug. 2008.
The logistics were excellent. First, with Showtime’s help, I secured a pair of direct flights between Pittsburgh and John F. Kennedy International Airport, also known as JFK. Second, the departure times ensured I wouldn’t have to travel on short rest: 1:05 p.m. on the outbound, 3:30 p.m. returning home. Third, the crew hotel – the Hilton JFK – was located less than two miles from the airport and 20 minutes from the Aviator, plus it offered free shuttle service, eliminating the expense of a taxi. Fourth, even after all this time, one of my greatest fears remains driving in the Big Apple but that wouldn’t be an issue this time. On most Showtime production memos, there is a section that details the various carpools and, on this one, I was listed as a passenger while veteran cameraman Gene Samuels, who shared my 3 p.m. call time, would drive. As far as getting back to the hotel once the show ends, that detail remained up in the air, especially since taxis don’t venture out toward the Aviator’s out-of-the-way location after midnight. I wasn’t worried, though: Past experience told me that getting a ride with someone else on the Showtime crew wouldn’t be much of a problem.
When I went to bed the previous night, I “set” my mental alarm for 7:45 a.m. but when I rolled over the next morning, all I saw was my clock flashing LED numbers. Our area had been beset by thunderstorms the last few days and, sometime during the night, a power surge had briefly knocked out the power. Thus I had no idea what time it really was. I was too lazy to get up and check my cell phone (which was on a dresser eight feet away), so I remained in bed until I sensed there was enough natural light in my room to guess what time it might be. When that moment came, it turned out I had arisen at 7:38 a.m. How about that?
I pulled out of the driveway at 8:48 a.m. amid stormy skies, a light drizzle and a temperature in the low-40s. As I headed north, the weather only got worse. Several lightning bolts cut a frightening zig-zag through the skyline and, at one point, the rain was so heavy that I needed to set the windshield wipers to their fastest speed in order to continue driving. Once I neared Pittsburgh, however, the torrent of precipitation slowed, then stopped and, while the sky was still overcast, the danger was all but gone. I found a space in the “B” section of the extended parking lot – a good spot – and I sailed through security thanks to the short TSA Pre-Check line and its minimal screening.
I grabbed breakfast at the B-terminal Subway and ate at my gate – B-40. It was at this point where the travel irregularities began.
Shortly before our original boarding time of 12:35, we were told our plane – which was coming in from Miami – would arrive at the gate at approximately 1:10, five minutes beyond the original departure time. That meant we wouldn’t be leaving Pittsburgh until nearly 2 p.m. This would have been a very worrisome development had a connecting flight been in the equation or if Showtime had asked me to fly in the day of the show instead of the day before but, since neither circumstance was in play, I wasn’t concerned at all.
A few minutes later, we were told our gate would be changed from B-40 to B-38 but that wasn’t too bad since the new gate was around 150 feet away. Just as I was about to stow my laptop in preparation for that walk, I heard this over the loudspeaker: “Would passenger Groves please report to the gate for re-check?”
That certainly caught my attention. That’s because in all my years of flying, I had heard my name called less than a dozen times. Because I was within eyesight of the agent at the new gate, I raised my index finger in a “just a minute” manner to let her know I was on the way.
As I walked toward the podium, all sorts of negative scenarios swirled in my mind. Here’s why: Several times, the agents had unsuccessfully tried to induce volunteers to give up their seats on what had been an over-booked fight. While I was a veteran flier with status on US Airways, I was a relatively young patron on American Airlines, with whom US Airways was merging. I knew the two companies were in the process of combining US Air and AA frequent-flier accounts but I wasn’t sure whether that had been done for me, especially since my last few flights initially placed me in not-so-desirable areas of the cabin. Therefore, I believed that I, a bottom-feeding AA flier, was moments away from being involuntarily bumped from this direct flight to JFK – the only such flight on today’s schedule – and being given a new itinerary that would require multiple stops. Again, had I been asked to fly in on the day of the show instead of the day before, this would have been a disaster because I would have arrived at the arena hours beyond my call time. But since I had a one-day cushion, I silently braced myself for what would be a mere inconvenience.
When I reached the podium, I indeed was given a new boarding pass. But instead of being bumped, I was bumped up – to first class. Yes!
The boarding process, however, was delayed further because our aircraft was in the middle of executing a two-airport itinerary. In our case, the plane was scheduled to fly from Miami to JFK with a stop in Pittsburgh. Those who wanted to proceed to JFK had to de-plane with everyone else, then re-board once the aircraft was readied for the second half of the trip. Those passengers were allowed to enter the plane first, after which the boarding process for our Pittsburgh group began.
That process didn’t go smoothly either. Several passengers were given new seats (including one in first class) while others left belongings at the gate that needed to be claimed. One forgot a white jacket while another left an unclaimed red roller board on the jetway. Once everything was sorted out, the plane finally left for New York shortly after 2 p.m.
The flight itself was smooth and we touched down 70 minutes later. Ground traffic postponed our arrival at the gate for another 15 minutes but once I deplaned, the next part of my mission began – finding the hotel shuttle.
In most airports, one follows the signs for “ground transportation,” exits the airport and waits for the various shuttles to roll past. I found out the hard way that it doesn’t work like that at JFK. After several minutes of waiting, I called the hotel on my cell phone to see if I was doing things correctly.
The combination of ambient noise and the muffled, inconsistent connection made it impossible for me to understand what the clerk at the Hilton JFK was telling me.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t pick up what you said,” I told her. “Let me duck inside where it’s a little bit quieter.”
Except it wasn’t. She repeated the instructions but, again, the audio was muffled and, worse yet, I only made out every other word. I told her what I thought I heard – “Take the air tram” to the first stop and wait for the buses there – I knew I still didn’t have the complete story. I apologized for my trouble and asked her to recite her instructions again once I found a less chaotic spot.
I thought I had the perfect place – a men’s restroom just 50 feet away. How many people could be in there at one time, especially since there are so many restrooms inside an airport? When I stepped inside, it appeared I had made a smart move. However, the very moment when I asked her to begin speaking, someone triggered the automatic hand dryer, which drowned out every single word. After asking her to recite them a fourth time – to little avail – I thanked her and hung up.
With my next steps still unclear, I found an information desk and described my situation. It was here that all was made clear: Instead of the “air tram,” I would take the “air train,” which I would reach by taking a nearby escalator.
“But make sure you board the one that takes you on one track (the Jamaica Station Train) instead of all tracks (the Howard Beach Train),” the desk attendant said. “Otherwise, you’d be going all over the place before reaching your stop. Once you get on the right train, the first stop will be Federal Circle (which I had heard the hotel clerk mention). You get off the train there and that’s where you need to go to wait for your hotel shuttle.” To further illustrate his instructions, he gave me a pamphlet and circled where I was and where I needed to go.
I followed the airport signs to the Air Train and did as he asked. Within 10 minutes, I was at the shuttle pick-up area but while buses for virtually every other hotel came and went, none of them were from the Hilton JFK. I called the hotel and the same woman who talked with me before answered.
“I am now at the shuttle pick-up area,” I told her.
“The shuttle is on its way,” she replied.
While I was waiting, one of the other shuttle bus operators asked me where I was going. When I told him the Hilton JFK, he replied, “OK, look for the big blue bus.” I passed that information along to a Florida-based Englishwoman who was wondering, as I was, why our bus was the only one that hadn’t yet arrived. Wouldn’t you know it: As soon as she called the hotel to find out the reason for the delay, our bus finally came on the scene. I later learned from the bus driver that pick-ups are done every 30 minutes and that I had missed the last bus by just five minutes.
OK, so my timing was bad. I was just glad to get out of the drizzly 43-degree chill.
Once I checked in, unpacked my belongings and made several phone calls to alert all that I was safe and sound, I ventured downstairs for an early-evening meal. I bought a ham-and-cheese sub from the stand in the hotel lobby and had planned to buy chips and a diet soda from the nearby gift shop, which was closed at the moment but, according to the small clock sign on the door handle, would re-open in 10 minutes’ time. That didn’t happen; it would be another 30 minutes beyond that before the shop’s doors were unlocked. Me being me, I didn’t sit and stew; I passed the time by chatting with ShoBox director Rick Phillips, analyst Raul Marquez and graphics guru Joe Jacovino before buying my bounty and returning to the room.
The meal really hit the spot after a long travel day, a day that probably took a little more out of me than I thought because I ended up turning out the lights shortly after midnight.
Friday, April 10: For me, this day began after more than seven hours of pretty solid sleep and I spent much of the morning catching up on the work I didn’t have the energy to do the previous night. Once I reached a good stopping point, I returned to the lobby to buy breakfast – a mini-bowl of Frosted Flakes from the gift shop. That’s about all the food I can handle in the morning.
After consuming my bounty, I spent the remainder of the time working on perhaps the most important pre-fight analysis I’ll write for some time – Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao. Once I began running the numbers, some fascinating tidbits emerged – some of them may be used on the pay-per-view broadcast – but I wouldn’t be able to formulate a solid opinion until the work was complete and I was a long way from the finish line.
I met my ride to the arena, the aforementioned Gene Samuels, in the lobby shortly after 2:30 and his camera equipment required nearly every square inch of the minivan’s storage space. Although Samuels is a native of Chicago, he spent considerable time in New York City and thanks to his work in local news, he knew virtually every square inch of the metropolitan area – a big plus for this New York City drive-o-phobe.
Did you know: Besides being the cameraman who gave us the iconic shot of the ShoBox series – Ebo Elder kneeling at ring center after his Dec. 2004 war with Courtney Burton – Samuels captured the footage that eventually led to Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan’s attacker, Shane Stant, being identified. When I brought this up to Samuels, he chuckled, then modestly stated that the shot was merely the fruits of his training as a news cameraman. He always made sure to keep his camera in stand-by mode just in case he needed to shoot on short notice.
Because city authorities had used wooden horses to block numerous entry points to the Aviator, it took us several tries to access the parking lot closest to the TV truck. Once there, we went our separate ways and began our official tasks. Punch-counting colleague Aris Pina, a resident of Astoria in Queens, had arrived several minutes earlier, so he had already collected our wristband credentials and a copy of the bout sheet.
But while we were ahead of the game, it was evident that those who were working at ringside had bigger challenges to tackle. One person estimated that preparations were five hours behind schedule because of a myriad of technical issues. As has always been the case, however, the crew solved those issues in plenty of time for the show. Aris and I eventually got power at our work station as well as the treasured green light that indicated all was well electronically.
As usual, I spent the down time chatting with various ringsiders. They included HBO’s “unofficial official” Harold Lederman – a fixture at metropolitan boxing events – referees Benjy Esteves Jr. and Earl Brown, ring announcer Thomas Treiber and broadcasters Raul Marquez and Steve Farhood. Of course, Aris and I always had plenty of topics to discuss. To get an idea of our level of boxing nerdiness, one of those topics was the lineage of Leo Gamez’s four divisional title reigns and, thanks to our internet access at ringside, we were able to resolve some debate points. We also watched a YouTube video of Floyd Mayweather’s “WrestleMania XXIV” match with The Big Show, which we both thought was highly entertaining.
The undercard featured a mix of blowouts and competitive scraps. Junior middleweight Patrick Day bounced back from his decision loss to Alantez Fox in January by crushing southpaw Colby Coulter in 145 seconds while debuting junior featherweights Elisa Collaro (a native of Italy living in New York) and Misato Kamegawa (a Japanese residing in the Bronx) fought to a four-round draw. Junior welterweight prospect Wesley Ferrer of Brooklyn lifted his record to 8-0 (with five knockouts) by battering Missouri product Bryan Timmons (2-4, 3 KOs), before dropping and stopping him in round two, after which local junior middleweight Shawn Cameron advanced to 9-0 (and four KOs) thanks to a six-round shut-out decision over Kansas City’s Aaron Drake (14-8, 9 KOs).
Junior featherweight Brooklynite Rafael Vazquez powerfully polished off Missourian Andre Wilson in two rounds to up his ledger to 14-1 (12) while dropping Wilson’s to 14-9-1 (12), then cruiserweight Travis Peterkin (15-0, 7 KOs) of Brownsville methodically broke down Atlanta’s Donta Woods to the point that Woods, now 8-4 (with seven KOs), retired between rounds five and six. The final non-televised bout saw welterweight Mikkel LesPierre complete the sweep of local winners with a dominating six-round decision to advance his record to 7-0-1 (3) at the expense of Carl McNickles, who fell to 8-8 (6).
The crowd inside the cozy confines of the Aviator was lively and involved throughout and the three televised fights to come would give them even more to cheer about.
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 13 writing awards, including 10 in the last five years and two first-place awards since 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales from the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or email the author at [email protected] to arrange for autographed copies.