Here’s what didn’t happen: I did not win a bunch of games on Jeopardy! and triumphantly quit my job in a mid-game interview.
That’s obviously not why I went on the show. I went on the show because it was a lifelong dream, and I took the test this year in particular because it was important to me to get on there while Alex Trebek is still hosting. But the notion of using my Jeopardy! appearance to burn all my workplace bridges was nonetheless something I fantasized about in down time between writing flashcards about famous operas and European rivers.
I had it all mapped out: Roughly six or seven wins deep, Trebek opens his banter, “our champion, Ted, is a sportswriter-”
“Former sportswriter, Alex,” I reply. “I quit. I’m a 93-thousandaire now, and I don’t want to work at that job anymore.”
My own Magic Johnson moment, to be punctuated in this case by some awesome and inimitable Trebek quip. I even had the title in mind for the freelance piece I’d inevitably be able to sell once my long and storied run finally came to its conclusion: “I won 27 episodes on Jeopardy! to spite the USA Today.”
And from there? Who knows! Maybe I become a celebrated social critic, penning a widely renowned weekly column for some reputable outlet. TV hosting gigs, with this hair of mine. My headshot on the wall at Wo Hop. A rundown of my Sunday routine in the New York Times’ Metropolitan section. All the trappings of Jeopardy! immortality, and then some.
Here’s what did happen: I hit a Daily Double in the first round and entered Double Jeopardy with a lead. In the second round, a $2000 answer to which I knew the correct question — “What is the Federalist Party?” — seemed too easy for its position on the board, and, seeing how I was up against an 18-time champion who ran away with the previous two games that filmed that morning, I checked the scores and decided not to risk it. Jason Zuffranieri — in my household, “The Nicholas Cage Guy” — maintained control of the board, and on the very next clue hit a Daily Double that let him put the game out of reach.
The Nicholas Cage Guy, for what it’s worth, is an extremely nice dude who had pretty well mastered the buzzer by that point. They tell you to wait for a light at the side of the game board to turn on before you click, but if you really wait to see the light, you have practically no chance of getting in first. You have to anticipate the light, and I falsely thought my musician’s rhythm and childhood video-game experience would help me more in that area than it did.
My man was lightning on that thing. Then, when I joked about how there were no categories about the 1988 Mets, Zuffranieri was like, “I loved the 1988 Mets!” And I recognized that if I had to lose, it might as well be to a 19-game winner who knew my sadness.
Obviously I ran into some bum luck, both for going up against a longstanding champion and for landing in a match with two dudes who seemed to have fairly similar bases of knowledge — how often are there three sports fans on an episode with a stadiums category?
Still, the Federalist Party will haunt me forever. I’ve also spent too much time considering piece-of-steak scenarios: What if I’d eaten a bigger breakfast? What if he green room hadn’t run out of coffee before my episode? What if I deferred my appearance until after my then-ongoing work drama had concluded, instead of making my appearance right in the thick of it?
But, hell, there was an actual sandwiches category and I only got two of them. The odds weren’t necessarily stacked in my favor, but a win was there for my taking and I blew it. Obviously I am disappointed in the outcome, but I’m glad I did it, and the experience was quite cool.
And that is, I suspect, where I will ultimately stand on my 6 1/2-year tenure at For The Win and USA Today once the remaining bitterness subsides.
When the job was good, I knew I was lucky to have it. Fortune smiled upon me, a lot, for a long time. For years, I had a steady sportswriting gig that allowed me tons of room for creativity and sometimes paid me to travel and do fun things. I spent a World Series game kayaking in McCovey Cove. I played baseball inside San Quentin prison. I was named the honorary president of Taco Bell for a day.
It was dope, and I’m thankful for it. There are thousands of outrageously talented writers in this world who will never get a chance to do half the cool stuff I’ve been able to do in my career.
But many of those thousands of outrageously talented writers are desperate for work, and that reality can always be weaponized against the employed. You think you deserve honesty? Respect? Promotion? The mildest trappings of human decency? Well, we thought you loved baseball!
On one of my last days in the office, in the throes of rage and frustration, I wrote out a prospective blog post that listed, in fairly great detail, my various reasonable gripes against the company. It was all true, but it ran so long that I feared publishing it would make me seem unhinged and unemployable.
The short version, I guess, is that there were clear and irreconcilable philosophical differences. I believed, philosophically, that they should give a shit about me, and they pretty demonstrably felt otherwise. Almost none of what happened was intended to be personal, but I took it all personally in part because I wrote personally, often at the behest of my editors and supervisors. I felt I had given too much of myself to the company to slip through the cracks, but they made it explicitly clear that my work would never be valued as much as that of some of my colleagues and that, in the bosses’ eyes, I was paid too much for what I did.
I could have saved the job, but aspects of it became untenable. By the end, I was spending far too many of the few waking hours I shared with my son pushing him away so I could write hot takes about something Skip Bayless said. That ain’t it, folks.
And I’m nobody’s albatross. A lifetime’s worth of experience as a straight white man with fabulous hair provides few, if any, coping mechanisms for feeling belittled, and I did not handle it especially well. My writing suffered for my joylessness, and my productivity plummeted. I applied for dozens of jobs and never got more than form letters of rejection in response, and I became convinced that continuing in my old job was working against my prospects of finding a new one. Where I had always envisioned the gig as a tunnel to something somehow even cooler, it felt like the tunnel had come to a dead end in the form of a brick wall and I was just bashing my head against it to try to break through.
My Jeopardy! appearance catalyzed my departure because I realized, honestly, that my best and most reasonable immediate shot at career advancement involved winning a bunch of money on a game show. And when that’s the case, it’s clearly time to move on. Also, 80,000 people take the online test and only 250 people wind up on the show, and getting the call helped rejuvenate my broken ego and reminded me that someone might actually want me for something.
So I’m out of work. I don’t know what happens next. I’m going to need to make money again, but I’ve come to the rationalizations that my responsibility to my family is not merely financial and that I don’t want my son to grow up with a contemptuous, defeated dad.
I left with some good clips, some great stories, a few more months’ worth of Gold status at Hilton hotels, and an unbreakable record of 106 on the Gannett NYC office’s pop-a-shot basketball game. It ended poorly, but it was hardly the worst. I’ll be OK.
I like writing and I’m not ready to stop pursuing it. I’m taking on a bigger parenting role right now, but I’m also planning to overhaul the look of this site and keep it at least mildly active. New Sandwich of the Week drops here tomorrow.