Wednesday, September 15, 2010

That Damned, Unnerving Uncertainty of It All
— A Miniseries (Part 2 of 4)

A Long, Long Times Ago...
Following the aforementioned email I rediscovered, I made a pointed search for a particular byline on the Los Angeles Times website. I was interested in learning about the current disposition of a writer who had been the subject of that email exchange I’d had with Alex’s wife in late April, 2007, when he had written a most unusual article about himself.

To my utter chagrin, instead of finding one of his current articles to catch up on, I discovered that Mike Penner, one of The Times’ best and brightest sportswriters by acclamation of all who knew and worked with him, following a tumultuous and very public two and-a-half year period in both his personal and professional life, committed suicide the day after Thanksgiving last year, November 27, 2009. It was Black Friday in more ways than one.

I was crushed, not only in stumbling upon the sad news, but even more so in the unjustifiable guilt I felt for having learned it so far after the fact.

Even more ironic, I thought, was that even coming in so late, the more I read, the more it seemed that I really wasn’t all that far behind others in commenting on what has rightfully become a blockbuster of a human interest story.

The saga of Penner's demise has obviously been big news at The Times, which published an expose on it this past March, but it has also been well-presented in major pieces by GQ Magazine in June of this year and, most recently, in last month’s article by Steve Friess in L.A. Weekly, posted on August 19, 2010.

Right about now you may be wondering why an L.A. Times sportswriter who who took his own life nine months ago has anything to do with a story about my brother Alex — or perhaps, why you should really even care. Well, the latter is up to you, but former, that's my bad.

I wasn’t aware of if, but apparently in writing about my little brother over the years, I’ve neglected to mention the career that he almost had; the one he dabbled in previous to his decision to make the practice of law his ultimate profession.

The Young Sportswriters of Orange County
While still a college student, Alex worked as a sportswriter for the now-defunct L.A. Times’ Orange County Edition from the early-to-mid 1980s. The late Mike Penner was one of his closest colleagues in that effort. They were good friends, well-respected, and appeared to both be on the fast track to local stardom as sportswriters in Southern California.

Penner actually came on a bit later, in 1983 and worked with Alex, often side-by-side, covering the local Orange County high school and junior college sports beats out of the L.A. Times Orange County offices in Costa Mesa.

My brother was a part of the same group of writers from which would emerge such current notables as Rick Reilly, Chris Dufresne, and of course, Penner; who went on to be a tremendous writer, and in most any other environment would have likely risen to the station of lead columnist.

However, due to the glut of organizational talent surrounding him at The Times, Penner had to settle for being just another great sportswriter in a department of great sportswriters. Nothing I have ever read or heard would indicate that he ever chafed at that status. That’s the kind of team player and non-assuming person he was.

Though their early roles on the high school/JUCO beat weren’t always sexy, both Penner and Alex were from time-to-time, given opportunities to write feature articles that appeared in both the Times L.A. Edition as well as its O.C. counterpart. Most involved the California Angels baseball and/or the Los Angeles Rams NFL football teams, both of which played in nearby Anaheim.

For Alex’s part, however, among his bigger splashes were a pair of rather controversial circumstances that didn’t necessarily feature his name in the byline.

The first occurred in 1983, when California Angels slugger Reggie Jackson was struggling through one of his worst seasons ever. Alex was gathering quotes for an article that would actually be written by another Times sportswriter, and in the course of the interview, asked Reggie a question that Mr.October apparently didn’t like.

The exchange quickly developed into a shouting match of apparently such epic proportion that the Hall-of-Famer to-be threatened to kick the young scribe’s ass.

But that was Alex. He was brash, confident, and knew B.S. when he smelled it (...and Reggie was usually full of it).

Then in August 1984, one of my brother's pet peeves, the Olympics came to town, being hosted in Los Angeles. In the midst of a sarcastic rant in the newsroom one day, a Times columnist absconded a quote from Alex that landed in a notes column appearing in the main paper’s sports section.

In it, Alex chirped, “The bad thing about the Olympics is that it legitimizes trash sports every four years.” It was but one sentence in a brief 61-word paragraph buried in a lengthy, four-column article, but the response to Alex’s statement ended up dominating the Times Sports ‘Letters’ section that week, as a host of angry readers took him to task for his contentious stance.

Yep. The boy was opinionated.

It’s important to note, however, that Alex wasn’t merely a shit-stirrer; that part of his persona wasn’t the norm. However he did have the balls as a writer to go with his gut wherever he saw fit; he wasn’t a yes-man; he couldn’t care less about being politically correct. he called it like he saw it.

He was as nice and as charming as anyone you’d ever meet, but cross him in an argument and you’d better remember to bring you’re ‘A’ Game. He was as skilled a debater as anyone I’ve ever witnessed — and as opinionated. His intelligence was almost annoying, but always as irrepressible as his vibrant personality.

When Alex went to work for The Times, huge sports fan that I am, I was as jealously proud as a big brother could possibly be for the direction his career seemed to be taking.

However after a few years, particularly when he and his wife decided it was time to start a family, Alex determined that the late nights, deadlines, and bar closings weren’t the ingredients of a future he wished to pursue.

He announced that he was leaving sportswriting behind in favor of a law career. He was subsequently accepted into a leading California Law school, where he went on to finish second in his class and serve as President of the Law Review his graduating year.
My initial reaction was mild disappointment over what I selfishly considered to be his giving up on a career at which he was obviously a natural to excel. However my disappointment quickly gave way to the awe and respect I felt in seeing him set his sights so high — and then going out and achieving them.

But then again, when he was a little boy, he always proclaimed that someday he’d be the President of the United States. Perhaps this was a logical first step, I remember thinking.

However if public office was an actual goal that he wished to pursue, it never got beyond the dream stage. He was indeed an outstanding attorney for 15 years, but appeared to be happy doing just that, while building a family and a life together with his wife, Saraph, including no further political aspirations (that he spoke of anyway).

Tragically that all changed once he began to succumb to the effects of Alzheimer’s. He officially resigned from the Bar Association in 2005.

Alex’s O.C. L.A. Times colleague, Mike Penner, on the other hand, would go on to great success with the paper. His life seemed to be the envy of anyone in his profession, with respect, great exposure, even the happiness of his apparent marriage-made-in-heaven to fellow Times sportswriter, Lisa Dillman.

But obviously things aren’t always what they seem; and as with my brother, Penner’s own set of demons would make themselves manifest a few years later.

Although I never met him personally, Alex’s numerous accounts involving the exploits of ‘The Penman’ (as they all called him), along with those of others in that stable of young sportswriters that now-Times Deputy Chief Sports Editor, John Cherwa had assembled in Orange County, made me feel as though I’d known him — and them — for years.

However the affinity I felt toward Penner was strongest for a couple of reasons; one being the fact that he and Alex were more or less partners in their duties during the entirety of the time they worked together. Just as importantly, Penner, went on to be The Times’ beat writer for my favorite baseball team, the somewhat schizophrenically-named California/Anaheim (and now, Los Angeles) Angels — which also meant that I read him religiously, even after I left Southern California.

I know how good he was and I know what a loss his departure truly is to the collective, quality fabric that makes up that outstanding newspaper.

But if you’re at all any kind of L.A. Times Sports aficionado, you likely also know that Penner’s intrigue as a person of interest didn’t just end with him being a fabulous writer; it quite literally ended with him being a tortured soul; it ended with him terminating his own life — as a man, when in fact he had lived most of the previous two years as a woman.

Next: Old Mike, New Christine, Same Demons
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