Dateline: Backstage on cut day
“It’s either $10,000 or zero, on cut day in this tournament you are either making money or losing money there is no in between.”
Elite angler Greg Vinson
This photo chilled me to my bones and will be a picture I will never forget:
I will never forget this one either:
Or this one:
Same for this one:
The drama you see on the water is nothing compared to the drama I see, and deal with backstage on “cut” day.
“Cut Day” means this exactly, half the field or so will make $10,000 and fish on Saturday, the rest will go home and not make a dime.
Welcome my friends to the story you rarely get to see.
Welcome my friends to “Cut Day Backstage Math,” and this is what it looks like in living color:
“…children at your feet…”
“Yes, risk-taking is inherently failure-prone. Otherwise, it would be called ‘sure-thing-taking.”
— Jim McMahon
Jared Lintner, Bobby Lane and Todd Faircloth are all doing “Cut Day Backstage Math,” they are looking at Bobby’s phone as they try and figure out the cut line, the Mendoza Line for who stays to fish another day and who goes home.
The line where those above get paid, those below do not.
It is an all or nothing sport.
This sport of tournament fishing at its highest level is flat out the hardest sport I have ever covered in my entire career.
Deep down I don’t know how to do this, I want to yell at these guys who compete to go out every moment and give it their all, to swing for the fences, to let it all hang out for the win.
I want to tell them as a friend, as a two decade award winning sports reporter to go out and play the game b*lls out, “…go for broke.”
Except “go for broke” actually means that out here, it’s not some stupid catch phrase, out here you can actually go broke.
And in my heart, in my soul, I know that affects the game.
Would Babe Ruth ever have become “The Babe” if every strikeout cost him money?
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
How many home runs can you hit if the real sponsor for your season is Mastercard?
“…wonder how you manage…”
“Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.”
— Jimmy Carter
I am standing in the shadows.
I’m under the shade of the backstage tent, I am basically out of the main sight lines of the anglers, they come in one by one, put their bagged fish into the cool water of big gray tubs, and pull out their phones.
They are looking at the leaderboard online at Bassmaster.com, their thumb moves down, the leaderboard scrolls down, their thumb stops and presses in, the leaderboard stops…
…they usually stop at one or two places…the midway point of the leaderboard, the cut line, or it stops at where their place now is on the live weight count then…
…the thumb scrolls upwards and stops again…
…at the cut line, that’s when they do the “Cut Day Backstage Math” and this is the math that they are doing in their head…
…do I have enough?
Do I have enough weight, did I catch enough to make the cut?
Will I gain in the point standings, will I lose ground in the points and be knocked out of next year’s Bassmaster Classic, or, will I make a check, will I make money?
Or did it cost me money to be here, to do this?
I never look at the leaderboard on Cut Day.
I don’t have to, I stand in the shadows backstage.
I watch the thumbs scroll up.
I watch the thumbs scroll down.
I watch where the thumbs stop.
I watch then this, does the angler’s head raise up?
Or does it drop further down?
I don’t need the Internet to tell me who stays and who goes home.
Their thumbs, their heads, tell me all I need to know.
Greg: “It’s painful at times, no matter what you have at stake, first of all you want to get paid, no other way to put it.”
“…to make ends meet…”
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.”
— T.S. Eliot
First of all this is not a Greg Vinson story, Greg just happens to be one of my closer friends out here, he used to be a college baseball player, he gets what sports is all about, so I can talk to him as an athlete and as a friend who will be open with me…and I know this as well:
“I’ve had a really slow start this year, by far the toughest start I’ve ever had in any season so a check is a really big deal right now, a check would really feel a lot like a win right now because where my confidence is at, yeah it’s a big deal, a real big deal.”
Up top in this story the first picture is of his son Gaige.
The second photo is of his wife, Stephanie.
Greg is the third picture.
At this point Greg is not on the bubble of not making the cut, but he can certainly see the bubble from where he sits.
His thumb is doing lots of scrolling up and down, so is Stephanie’s thumb:
“You try not to think about that, the money stuff while you are fishing you make decisions to do the best you can in the tournament but when you’ve done what you can do then it’s just up to the scales and everybody else to see where you fall out, there’s really nothing else you can do that’s the most painful part about it, at that point it’s out of your hands and you just sit back and wait and watch.”
“…who finds the money…”
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.”
I stand in the shadows and I watch, watch the thumbs of many move up and down, scroll up and down, I stand there knowing how much this means to so many of these anglers, many of whom I now count as close as family.
I want to tell them that years from now when they look back, when they know they tried, they know they made the show, that these years will be some of the best years of their lives.
Those who finish today 52 through 109 won’t believe me if I told them that now, I wouldn’t, in fact if I were them and someone told me that today I would certainly tell that person something as well…and it wouldn’t be polite.
Last night I sat at the dining room table in the rental house that I’m staying at with my on the road roommates, Elite anglers Paul Elias and Shaw Grigsby Jr., and both are packing to leave on Saturday, neither one made the cut.
I know what we paid for the rental, about $400 each, I know how much they paid for meals, for gas for both their trucks and boats, for ice and all the other “incidentals,” and I’m betting it’s close to $1,000 this week for each of them.
They made nothing.
Shaw: “You know db I missed the cut by 1 pound, 1 ounce, I lost a fish out there yesterday, that fish was all that and more weight wise, you know what kind of fish that was?”
“It was a $10,000 fish that’s what it was. Ten-grand a pound fish.”
Losing always costs money, lose the Super Bowl and you make half the money the guys who won it get ($107,00 winners, $53,000 to losers), but you still get paid.
I don’t know what to say to Shaw, I know he is here on his own free will, know he knows what to expect going in, it’s no secret this is pay to play.
Shaw asks for no sympathy.
Nor does Greg or anyone else out here who plays the game, they are adults and none of this is a secret.
It is by far the hardest sport I have ever covered.
“Rah, Rah” sounds hollow when the mortgage is late.
“…when you pay the rent…”
“Winning solves everything.”
If all you know of this sport comes from press peleases, from reading the quotes from those who win, from those with big weights or those up on stage smiling, you don’t really know the sport.
I wish I could get you a pass and have you stand backstage with me, stand off to the side and don’t watch where the press heads, they follow the winners, the bright lights, the drama of the game, and you never see what happens in the shadows of the tent backstage.
The drama of the game you never hear about happens in the long empty road home with nothing to show for it.
If we are to be true to the game we need to cover the shadows of the sport as much as the bright lights.
I have been in the losing locker room of NFL Championship games and I have to tell you from absolute personal knowledge there are as many stories in the losing locker room as there are in the winner’s locker room…but you rarely hear of those.
I believe for you to be a true fan of the game, any game, you have to know the full story, the good and the bad, the winners and the losers, the reality of the sport, show the smiles and show the frowns, the cheers and the tears.
For the record of the photos above:
#3: Greg Vinson made the cut.
#4: Paul Elias did not.
#5: That’s Tiffanie, Brandon Palaniuk’s Significant Other looking worried but Brandon made the cut.
#6: Chad Morgenthaler made the cut.
#7: Faircloth, Lane and Lintner all fished on Saturday as well.
I will never forget photo number 1 because at that moment it wasn’t clear whether Daddy would be fishing tomorrow, or coming home. I have no idea, sort of doubt whether Gaige knew the intricacies of what was going on, but I do know children sense things, good or bad. I don’t know, my gut says, the boy knows something is up.
But, who knows.
There is one other shot from back here I will never forget…this one:
If you are a fan of this game, as I am, this photo should make you very happy. It is a photo of what giving it your all looks like, of what swinging for the fences looks like, of how as a fan you want those who play it look like after coming off the field.
It is my buddy Timmy Horton, and he made the cut as well, thing is it is just a “representative” shot of what it looks like back here.
I’ve seen this exact shot with different anglers hundreds of time.
Even with so much on the line.
Even with the thumbs scrolling up and down.
Even with the frowns and stares.
Most out here play this game to win, play this game as it is supposed to be played and give it everything they’ve got.
Pay attention to the bright lights and big stage, but also glimpse backstage.
The more you know about the front and back of the stage, the more you will understand the game.
The more you will love the game.
The more it will be a game that should be loved.
I’ve been in the sports reporting business for more than two decades.
I’ve covered every major sport and sporting event on the planet.
And trust me when I say this, this game we’ve got here when you see all sides of it, when you know all sides of it, this game of ours, of yours…
…is one of the best.
And making it the hardest to cover, attests to that.
“…did you think that money was Heaven sent.”
“You can observe a lot by watching.”