Thursday March 5th, 2009

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- I'm in Florida for spring training, doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Three days ago I picked up a newspaper and read about the tragic drowning accident down here involving the four football players. The following morning (Tuesday), I was driving when IT popped into my head -- a story idea.

This is the anatomy of a story.

• STEP 1: While driving from Ft. Myers to Port Charlotte on Tuesday, I was thinking about the drowning accident. Then I recalled an anecdote that never made it into my first book, The Bad Guys Won. A pitcher on the '86 Mets named John Mitchell had been in a boat accident in 1983, and a few ballplayers had died. I made a mental note to myself: Check it out.

• STEP 2: Upon arriving in Port Charlotte, spring home of the Tampa Bay Rays, I flip on the computer, load up Nexis and do a search for "John Mitchell" and "boat" and "accident" This story pops up:

The Associated Press

November 2, 1983, Wednesday, PM cycle

Baseball Players Rescued from Gulf, But Two Still Missing

SECTION: Domestic News

LENGTH: 363 words

DATELINE: PUNTA GORDA, Fla.

Two professional baseball pitchers were rescued after spending 20 hours bobbing in the Gulf of Mexico, but a search resumed today for two other men tossed into the water when their small boat sank.

Treated for exposure and released from a Punta Gorda hospital after they were found Monday were John Mitchell, 18, of Nashville, Tenn., and Scott Skripko, 22, of Hampton, N.J., both pitchers with the Winston-Salem Red Sox of the Class A Carolina League, a Boston Red Sox farm team.

The search continued today for another team member, Tony Latham, 20, of Robersonville, N.C., and Mark Zastrowmy, 35, of Punta Gorda, owner of the boat which was swamped while the four were trying to retrieve a cap which had blown into the water.

Search crews from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Florida Marine Patrol and the Charlotte County sheriff's office continued combing the Gulf waters for the other two.

Mitchell, recalling the ordeal, said Tuesday that after he surfaced he could hear Latham shouting, "I can't swim, I can't swim." He said he tried to throw a life preserver to his teammate, but the wind blew it away.

He said he reached Latham, found he was unable to support him and called to Skripko, "He's got to have something, he's going to drown."

When Skripko threw a small cooler to him for flotation, he briefly let go of Latham and then, "I looked around and Tony went down."

Mitchell said Latham had been at the helm of the small boat. It was the first time he had driven a boat.

"Tony was wearing Mark's cap and it blew off," Mitchell said. "He asked if they wanted him to turn around and get it, and Mark said, 'Sure."'

Latham turned the boat at full throttle, Mitchell said, and it began taking on water as it crossed its own wake. When he slowed to allow Skripko to reach for the cap, more water washed aboard. When he tried to resume speed, Mitchell said, "Maybe we had too much weight up front, but the boat nosedived."

Mitchell and Skripko said they saw fishing boats while bobbing in the water, bit it was not until nearly 12:30 Monday when Skripko, clutching the cooler, saw fishermen 150 yards away and was able to attract their attention with whistles.

• STEP 3: I look up Tony Latham on a great minor league baseball Web site, www.thebaseballcube.com. This is what I find. The vital nugget is his college -- he attended the University of Virginia.

• STEP 4: I leave a message for John Mitchell.

• STEP 5: I call the University of Virginia sports information department, and leave a message for Andy Fledderjohann, an assistant in the department (and a man with a most odd last name). Andy calls me back, and has before him the 1982 Virginia baseball media guide. "It's tiny," he says. "And very poorly done." Two key nuggets, however: Latham's major, and that he's from a North Carolina town called "Robville." I look it up, and "Robville" doesn't exist. However, "Robersonville" does.

• STEP 6: I do an Ancestry.com search for Tony Latham, and find nothing useful. Sometimes things don't go anywhere, but it's always worth a try.

• STEP 7: John Mitchell returns my call, and he's fantastic. We speak for 35 minutes, him on his cell outside of his office, me on a laptop, sitting in a really uncomfortable chair, cell phone awkwardly wedged between cheek and shoulder.

• STEP 8: I again turn to Nexis, and look up people named "Latham" in Robersonville, N.C. Forty-three names pop up. I call the first, ask if she's related to a Tony Latham who played baseball. "I wish," she says. "I could use the money." I call the second. An older woman answers. "My name is Jeff Pearlman," I say, "and I write for Sports Illustrated's Web site. I am looking for anyone related to a baseball player named Tony Latham."

"Well," says the woman, "I don't know a Tony Latham -- but Anthony Latham was my son."

We proceed to speak for 30 minutes (or so). She is a wonderful interview -- sad and reflective, good memory. She gives me the number of her second-oldest daughter, Vickie, who I call shortly thereafter. She, too, is excellent -- and even provides photos.

In the span of, oh, an hour, I've gone from having nothing about Tony Latham, to having his entire life story.

• STEP 9: I return to the SI condo in Tampa and sit down to write. A message to the other ballplayer involved, Scott Skripko, goes unreturned. (His wife actually called me on Wednesday, saying he didn't want to be rude, but he couldn't talk about it). Usually, as a journalist, I'll go one ... two follow-up calls. But in a circumstance like this -- no. One is enough.

• STEP 10: I have about two hours to write. This is what I hand in.

It's not the best story I've ever written. Wish I had more time; used some words better; etc. But I feel good that Tony Latham's name and photograph appear on a Web site read by hundreds of thousands of people. It doesn't bring him back, sadly, but it brings back his memory.

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