Before we go any further, there's something you should know: There are circus chimps milling about with more real-world skills than me--probably more smarts, too. Most of college was spent stumbling from one hall to another in a drink-addled stupor, pretending to pay attention about some subject or another and not doing a very good job of it. When a professor started talking about two trains leaving from different points and traveling toward each other, I was always worried I'd be asleep by the time they got to their destination.
Mr. Gonzalez, if you are going to nod off in my class, at least don't snore.
Luckily, my lack of academic retention hasn't held me back in the "real world." Probably would have if I'd turned out to be a chemist or a CPA or a trash man. But, when you do something like this, the only thing you really need to know is who won the game last night. SportsCenter, ESPN's signature sports-highlight show, is a quick, easy fix for that, eliminating half the "job" before it's even begun. Besides, sports were always something I was interested in, so little inane athletic facts tended to stick with me where square roots or the reason for Bastille Day never did.
I knew/know sports. Or so I thought.
When I heard about this game show, ESPN's 2 Minute Drill, it felt right, like my whole life had been geared toward glorious conquest on cable television. Finally, a reason to live! Sports trivia? For money? Are you kidding? That's sooo me. If you didn't know, I'm a sportswriter (cue music from 2001: A Space Odyssey here). Visions of offshore bank accounts filled with ESPN's money entertained me for weeks. I figured I'd jet up to New York, schmooze, get a little face time. And win. After all, if there's a Smooth Jimmy "Lock of the Week," shouldn't it be a sportswriter going on a sports game show? Absolutely it should.
I make the long trek from Dallas to New York to try out for the show. Took, literally, a plane, a few trains (mmm, the sweet smell of East Coast subway urine) and an automobile, spanning five states. I am the last one of a group of 30 or so to arrive at the audition. They almost don't let me take the test. Actually, I wish they hadn't. Would have spared me the embarrassment that is sure to come. Right now, I'm sitting on a plastic folding chair in some office building in Manhattan--tucked away on West 55th Street between 10th and 11th--on the 13th floor, and if there were any windows in this damn room, I'd seriously consider jumping. The good people at 2 Minute Drill must have thought of this--but they didn't get my cyanide pills, so last laugh is on them. The others (all middle-aged white guys with body odor) who are here auditioning for the show don't seem to be doing much better. There's a lot of grunting and moaning and "oh-shitting" going on, like some terrible porn flick you can't mute.
We all have a clipboard, on which is a yellow sheet of paper with 20 fill-in-the-blank questions that must be completed in 10 minutes. That's the first round. J.P., Lord of the Game Show People, told us earlier that those who "pass" the first round will move on to the second round--a mock game show, from which actual contestants get selected (only six will eventually make it out of the first round; I'm guessing they provided J.P. with "favors," but that's just a guess).
Now, we're about five minutes into the test, and I'm staring at my yellow sheet of paper with all the blank spaces staring right back, mocking me. I wonder what passes for "pass" these days.
"I can't tell you that," J.P. had said earlier. He's a young urban professional, well-dressed and groomed in black slacks, with a button-down, powder-blue cheeseball shirt. No tie, though, which is a shame because now I won't be able to strangle him with it before I make my getaway. "Just try to do the best you can."
I'm hoping by "best" he meant, "scratch your balls and sit quietly" because I've got that down. The answers, uh, not so much. Now, ESPN asked all the prospective contestants not to discuss the test. Of course, I'm a man of my word.
The first question, the very first one, is this: Name two of the four non-Canadians to win the Hart Trophy. Shee-it. Are non-Canadians even allowed to win it? Isn't there some NHL bylaw prohibiting such blasphemy? Suddenly, I'm beginning to think those offshore bank accounts are going to be a bit emaciated. And that's one of the easier questions.
I wonder how tough the MENSA test is.
My brain hurts. My eyes water. Coming in, I thought I was golden. I had ordered a sports almanac, studied furiously (a strict regimen of staring at the book's cover while drinking myself stupid--or smart, depending on whom you ask) and even enlisted my editor to quiz me. But nowhere in the course of my preparation had any hockey questions more difficult than "True or false, Gretzky starts with a 'G'?" come up. If only I had my quiz book with me right now, I'd cheat. (Amazon.com assures me it will have that book shipped "soon," which is a relief since I ordered it a week before the tryout. Ah, the wonders of overnight delivery.) I can't cheat off the guy in front of me, though not for lack of trying. The animal must be able to smell my struggle, because he's hovering over his yellow sheet of paper like a junkie guarding a crack pipe.
I'm in a bad way, but I'm not the biggest sucker here. There's a short fellow who looks like a scale model of Randy Johnson, complete with mullet and pock marks. He came from Illinois, which isn't that bad until I found out he drove from Illinois.
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"I'm unemployed," he said, squinting. "I figured this would be easier than working for the money."
J.P. enters the room again and tells us we have a minute left. I've answered maybe half these things, and I have no idea how many are right. Is it possible to get a negative score? It's hard to focus. All I can think about is the money and how I'm never going to see a cent unless I rob Kenny Mayne. Perhaps if I answer one of the "tough" questions, they'll take pity on me and let me be on the show or at least give me a parting gift or a paper bag to wear over my head.
OK. Question: "Who was the 1931 Gas House Gang MVP?" Right. Baseball. I know this. It's not the dead guy, it's the other one. What's his name? Snuffleupagus?