Trading Places

By any standards, the edition of ESPN Classic's Road Show that was assembled to hype the 2001 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Seattle featured a dream lineup:

Dave Winfield -- legendary slugger, member of the 3,000-hit club, a phenom so complete he was drafted by professional franchises in basketball, football and baseball. Harmon Killebrew -- nicknamed the "Killer," he sent 573 balls into home-run orbit during 22 years in the bigs. Brooks Robinson -- arguably the most gifted defensive third baseman to ever don a uniform. Gary Carter, Steve Garvey, Ryne Sandberg -- signature players for the New York Mets, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs, respectively. And, as if that weren't enough, the tandem of Bobby Thomson, who hammered "the shot heard round the world" to win the 1951 National League pennant for his squad, the New York Giants, and Ralph Branca, the Brooklyn Dodgers hurler whose pitch Thompson launched into baseball lore.

Oh, yeah: Hosting the program was Steve Cyphers, a onetime Colorado athlete turned broadcaster who understood full well how lucky he was to be trading observations with such an elite collection of baseballers. No wonder he calls his twelve-year gig as an ESPN reporter "the best job in the world."

So why did Cyphers, who's in his mid-forties, walk away from ESPN a few months ago in favor of a position about as far from the limelight as it's possible to get -- namely, a job at a small Roman Catholic school in Grand Junction? "Family," Cyphers says. "There were a few things, but family was a huge first."

Innumerable people have used this rationale over the years to explain decisions that seem on the surface to be inexplicable. But Cyphers is among the fraction of those who actually mean it.

Working for ESPN definitely had its perks, and Cyphers got to enjoy more than his share. Consider that he attended many of the past decade's most exciting sporting events, whether they took place in the United States or elsewhere. Beginning in 1992, for example, he covered five Olympics, including the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia, where he and Robin Roberts, who now delivers the news for Good Morning America, handled all the on-air duties for ESPN. And it was nice to bring greater recognition to individuals who competed in low-profile sports. For instance, Cyphers was largely responsible for informing the nation about Cael Sanderson, an Iowa State wrestler who recently finished his collegiate career with a stunning 159-0 record. Sanderson went on to win one of ESPN's sought-after ESPY awards as Best Male College Athlete.

Even better was the chance to report sports stories whose import went well beyond sports. Cyphers looks back fondly on an early-'90s piece about Jerry Richardson, the girls' basketball coach at a high school on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico. Richardson, who died in a 1996 car crash, not only turned the team into the state's best, but he was also credited with helping his charges rise above the virulent poverty in which they lived. By one account, 80 percent of his players went on to college, with most attending simply as students, not hoopsters.

In Cyphers's opinion, ESPN's decision to tell the Richardson tale epitomizes all that's right with the network. "I thought they'd never do a sports story that covered girls and high schools, and here I was being sent to cover girls at a high school." After years spent in an assortment of regional TV markets, he thought, "I've finally graduated to the varsity."

But this step came with a price: almost constant travel. For Cyphers, spending enormous chunks of his existence in concourses and hotel rooms was actively unpleasant, since the distances involved prevented him from being with his wife, Carolyn, and children, eight-year-old Laren and five-year-old Sammy, nearly as often as he liked. And even when he returned, his journeys had enduring negative repercussions.

"It wasn't just the time he was gone," Carolyn says, "because when he would come home, especially if it had been a long trip, he needed a whole day just to recover, and sometimes two if he was coming back from Japan or Australia or one of those places."

In the hopes of attaining a better balance in his life, Cyphers set out to convince Bob Eaton, ESPN's senior vice president and managing editor, that he could do his duty just as well from Grand Junction, his home town, as from a major media center -- the idea being that if he and his clan relocated there, they would be closer to extended family, making extra travel unnecessary. Eaton was extremely dubious about the scheme: "It was an unusual request," he concedes. But Cyphers made it work by becoming one of the Western Slope community's most frequent fliers, and pretty much its only full-time resident celebrity -- although Cyphers disputes this last distinction.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts