NOTE: I am going to follow my usual protocol in such situations and just type this once and post it. Trying to go back and make it perfect will be a Sisyphean task since it will never be perfect enough and I’ll just have start over again and again. So this will just be what I type on the first pass. It’s how it has to be.
I was sitting at the kitchen table when I saw a tweet saying that former Crew coach Sigi Schmid had passed away. It wasn’t a confirmed report, but a third-hand relaying of information. Nevertheless, the truth felt inevitable. His passing was confirmed shortly thereafter, extinguishing the final embers of wishing thinking.
I don’t care to rehash Sigi’s lengthy and distinguished NCAA and MLS coaching resume, although it proves that his life’s work was the right work for the right life. Those of us who love the Columbus Crew will always hold Sigi in high regard for embracing his brief Midwest sojourn and delivering a championship team that was perfectly constructed on the field and off. For that alone, Sigi is always going to hold a special place in my heart and the hearts of many in Central Ohio.
Tonight, however, I am thinking of two stories that are small glimpses into Sigi the human being. I don’t mean these to be at all definitive, as there are many people more qualified to speak about Sigi as a person, but they are two acts of kindness that have always stuck with me.
I’ll start with the totally inconsequential one involving me. First, I will state that Sigi and I were not particularly close, although he was great to me and trusted me enough to give me free reign in terms of team access. I think it was more that he knew my reputation and if the guys were comfortable, he wasn’t going to stand in the way, but it’s not like we socialized much outside of interviews.
Fast forward to 2011. Sigi was in his third season with the Seattle Sounders. As part of my quest to see a baseball game in every Major League ballpark, I was heading to Seattle with my friends Rob and Kerri to see the Crew play the Sounders, plus take in a Mariners game to cross Safeco Field off my ballpark list. Sigi caught wind that I was coming to town and told Crew team ops man Tucker Walther to let me know that he’d arrange for Mariners tickets. True to his word, when I saw him at Sounders training Friday morning, Sigi had called the Mariners front office and arranged for Rob, Kerri, and me to attend Friday night’s ballgame on the house.
I didn’t feel I was close enough to Sigi to ask for such favors, nor would I have conceived of Sigi as a go-to source for Mariners tickets, so it wasn’t a favor I sought out. Rather, it was a favor Sigi offered once he heard that the baseball nerd who writes about the Crew would be in Seattle for the weekend.
That made it one of the more special ballpark visits during my since-completed ballpark quest. It almost made up for the fact that Sigi’s Sounders thumped the Crew 6-2 the next afternoon.
The other story that is on my mind tonight was how Sigi stuck up for another writer in a way that was actually important. After the Crew defeated the Chicago Fire, 2-1, to claim the 2008 MLS Eastern Conference championship, Sigi used part of his post-game press conference to lobby that someone should send Craig Merz to California to cover MLS Cup. Sigi noted that Merz had been covering the team since 1996 and that he deserved to be there for the club’s first MLS Cup appearance and he thought it was horrible that Merz’s travel status was even in doubt.
Merz and Sigi had interacted in a professional capacity over the years due to Crew-Galaxy games or Merz’s coverage of MLS Cups while he was the beat writer for the Columbus Dispatch. Like my story above, it’s not like there was some deep personal friendship off to the side. Sigi just knew about people and wanted to help.
As I started writing this piece, I texted back and forth with Merz and he told me of another story. He had been taken off the Crew beat after the 2005 season, but when Sigi came to Columbus upon taking the coaching gig, no beat writer replacement had been hired yet. The paper sent Merz to the airport to greet Schmid upon his arrival and to get some comments. As part of that airport conversation, Merz revealed that he was off the beat and wouldn’t actually be covering Sigi or the Crew going forward. Sigi told him that whatever he could do to get Merz back in the game, let him know and he’d do it.
“I’ll never forget that,” Merz wrote to me.
In 2008, Merz did indeed get back in the game. That June, he began covering the Crew for the league’s official website. His first game was the home-loss clunker against expansion San Jose, but the team caught fire after that and next thing you know, they were Eastern Conference champions and Sigi Schmid was using his bully pulpit to speak on the record about how Craig Merz deserved to be at MLS Cup since he had been writing about the team since 1996.
Within days, MLS informed Merz that they were sending him to MLS Cup.
“I think MLS had an idea to send me to the 2008 MLS Cup,” Merz wrote reflecting on Sigi’s public lobbying, “but they couldn’t back out once Sigi said his piece.”
At best, Craig Merz and I were temporary peripheral figures in Sigi Schmid’s life. We weren’t his family. We weren’t his players. He had nothing to gain by going out of his way to help either one of us.
Yet he did. And that’s what I’m thinking about tonight.
That, and regret.
Sigi and I were supposed to talk in September. I had a few Crew history questions that I wanted to pick his brain about, plus I wanted to talk about his time in the city of Columbus. The week we were supposed to talk, the LA Galaxy let him go, so I put it off to give him some time. Besides, with his newfound availability, he was coming to the Crew’s 2008 reunion, so I’d soon see him at the stadium anyway.
Well, I had a terrible headache that day and missed the reunion. I was heartbroken, but whatever. I’d call Sigi within then next week or two. Then the first blast of #SavedTheCrew news broke on October 12. Then the Legends Game / Crew Reunion was upon us. Then came my excruciating three-week kidney stone ordeal.
By late November, my plan was just to hold off until the new year. There would be more #SavedTheCrew developments in December, plus the holidays, plus my wedding and honeymoon. Yes, I would definitely call Sigi in January once life—for both better and worse—stopped getting in the way.
I never imagined that death would get in the way instead. We all know that life is fragile and tomorrow is not promised to anyone and that nobody is immortal. Intellectually, we know this. But man does it ache when “next week” becomes “next month” becomes “January”—a month that is too late.
I know I am far from the only person on the planet wishing for one more phone call or one more conversation with Sigi Schmid, and if Heaven started giving them out, I’d gladly take my place at the very rear of a very long line.
And then I’d wait it out just for the chance to say thank you. Not just for bringing an MLS Cup championship to Columbus, but mostly for being someone who truly cared about people, regardless of whether anything was in it for him.
I have a Seattle Mariners ticket stub to prove it.
A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.