Published Wednesday, April 24, 2013 AT 3:22 PM / Updated at 9:24 PM
Diary of a Skywriter: ‘Stop writing. It’s over.’
Tom Shatel Omaha World-Herald

I’ve got a lot of memories up in the cobwebs. I’m not near ready to stop making more. So every now and then, I’m going to clean some out. And this looks like as good a place as any to put them.

Today, I’m thinking about two words.

“Stop writing.”

It was April 25, 1990 when I heard those words. This is not an anniversary I like to think about. But it gets better over time.

Once upon a lifetime, I was 31 years old and stuck in the mud. Burned out. In need of a new city, new job, new life. Or so I thought.

Change can be good. But change for the sake of change can also backfire. A lot of young people find this out. Old ones, too.

This was me after 10 years at the Kansas City Star, looking for a lifeline. It arrived in August, 1989. It was called the St. Louis Sun.

The Sun was something that doesn’t happen anymore: a start-up daily newspaper in a major metro area. St. Louis was dominated by the Post-Dispatch, the big, traditional, conservative machine, the conscience of the city.

The Sun promised to be everything that the P-D wasn’t: fun, colorful, racy and a tabloid. The owner was a guy named Ralph Ingersoll, who had made his fortune from a chain of smaller papers, including some in suburban St. Louis.

The Sun was right in my wheelhouse, full of bluster and promises of big stories and new adventures. And, yes, money. They promised to pay more money than I was making.

So in August 1989, I was off to join the Sun as their college sports writer, covering Missouri and Illinois, the Big Eight and Big Ten, and any national college event I wanted to cover. It seemed too good to be true.

What’s the old saying, if it seems too good to be true …

The Sun had a small staff, by metro daily standards, and most were young professionals looking to work hard and mix it up in a newspaper war. You never know who you’re going to meet. Mike Reilly, now my boss as executive editor of the World-Herald, was a staff writer at the St. Louis Sun.

(Mike told me the other day he still has several papers from that time. All I kept was a lousy red Sun stocking cap).

The Sun offices were in a shiny green building, the MCI building, that was nicknamed the “Green Ice Cube.” You went up an elevator, which I had never done at the Star, to the 11th floor. There was a giant receptionists’ desk. It looked like the set from “LA Law.” Much too nice for the blood spilled in a newsroom.

Best of all was the sports desk, and this might have been the deal-maker for me: we towered over Busch Stadium, the old Busch obviously. And if you stood in the right place you could see the outfield. Very, very cool.

Even better: Getting off work and walking two blocks to watch a baseball game. I had never done that before.

The actual job was nothing special. The stories in a tabloid ran shorter than I was used to writing. I was still covering Missouri sports. I covered a handful of Illinois football and basketball games. I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, the week of the Illinois-Michigan game and did a story on Bo Schembechler. Went to his news conference, which was held around a board room table over subway sandwiches, listening to Bo tell stories.

The interesting thing was seeing the reaction in St. Louis to the Sun’s, um, approach. There wasn’t a “Page 3″ girl, à la the London tabs. But the headlines were big and bold and catchy. Like, “Sawed In Half.” I don’t remember what the story was; you can only imagine. My other favorite was in reference to a story about a man and woman who were co-workers sitting in a bar. The guy got a little too playful and bit the woman in the behind.

Sun Headline: “He bit hers, so she sued his.”

True story.

I don’t know when I hit the wall at the Sun, but at some point the Busch Stadium view wasn’t such a big deal and I began to wonder what I was doing at a newspaper that ran headlines that said, “He bit hers, so she sued his.” I began to wish I could go somewhere else.

On April 25, 1990, I got my wish.

I was sitting in the office working on yet another story about the NCAA’s investigation into Missouri basketball. My sports editor, Stan Johnston, walked up and said, “Stop writing.”

“What do you mean, stop writing?”

“Stop writing. It’s over.”

“What’s over?”

“The paper. We’re closing shop. Today’s our last edition.”

I immediately called our sports columnist, a friend named Martin Fennelly (now with the Tampa Tribune). I told him the news. I said, get down here. We’re meeting.

Martin said, “Can I wear shorts?”

Me: “You can come naked if you want. It’s over.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever been fired or lost your job. But it’s not fun. At first, it’s surreal. You go out with your co-workers, who are either panicking or rejoicing. I had this week of doing what I wanted to do, hanging out, not a care in the world, and knowing I would get paid for another three months.

But then reality hits, and you still have bills to pay, and you’re sending out résumés to places that you don’t necessarily want to work or live.

The job market back in the spring of 1990 was not exactly fertile for a 31-year-old college sports writer. My old job in KC had been filled. I remember calling Mike Kelly at The Omaha World-Herald, but nothing was happening here.

My good friend and colleague Dennis Dodd (now with cbssports.com) and I made our plans over some of Gussie Busch’s finest. It was like senior year in college all over again. Which was not necessarily a good thing at that point.

I had a beat on a job with the Tacoma News-Tribune to cover the Sonics. Imagine that: I almost started a career covering the NBA.

But then fate stepped in. Fate has watched over me in my time. Steve Richardson, a good friend at the Dallas Morning News, called and said they had an opening. Apparently, their female tennis writer was having a baby and decided to leave the paper. I sent my stuff to Dallas in 24 hours.

A week later, I was on a plane to the Metroplex to interview. Two weeks later, I got the job, backing up another old friend, Rick Gosselin, on the Dallas Cowboys beat.

A year later, I would get a call from Omaha telling me that Mike Kelly was leaving sports to become the metro columnist.

I think about those days from time to time. I wonder whatever happened to a lot of good people, Stan and Kevin Bronson and Bob Hertzel and Mike Zuccarello. I wonder what would have happened had the Sun kept coming up every day. I wonder if I would have stayed or left.

Those times came back mostly every March, when I would return to STL to cover Creighton in the Missouri Valley basketball tournament. Occasionally, walking the streets of downtown St. Louis, I would see one of the old Sun newspaper boxes, a faded red and now covered with new stickers for singles magazines. One year, back in 1998 or ’99, I decided to go back to the Green Ice Cube, back to the 11th floor, to see what was there.

When I got off the elevator, a door was open. The old Sun offices were empty. Everything gone, and it looked like the space hadn’t been used since. Then my jaw dropped. I thought I saw a ghost. Over where the sports department used to sit, the old copy desk was still in place, by the window, overlooking Busch Stadium. It looked like a relic in the Titantic at the bottom of the ocean.

I got the heck out of there.

I’ve often wondered, had I known then what I know now, would I do that again? Would I leave a stable job for a new adventure, a risk, one that blew up seven months to the day of the first paper?

I struggle with it, but the answer is yes. Because if I changed one thing about my life, I might not be here today, with a family and job I cherish.

Mostly, I think it’s good to take a chance. Life is a series of decisions. Good. Bad. There are risks. I think it’s good to take a risk once or twice in your life, leave your comfort zone, push your limits. I’ve thought about it a lot as Nebraska and Creighton left comfort zones for new adventures in new leagues, places with upsides and potential trap doors. There’s no guarantee NU or CU will have success. But sometimes you have to find out. Sometimes, to get to your happy ever after, you have to follow the sun.

About Tom Shatel

Tom Shatel is a columnist for The Omaha World-Herald. You can get in touch with Tom on Twitter (@tomshatelOWH), or send him an email at tom.shatel@owh.com.