“I’m not just full of crap,” says Mike Vechery, like a guy used to hearing otherwise.
Vechery has of late been told as much by the brass of Washington Nationals, who he claims are out to ruin his sports-journalism career just as it’s getting started. And he’s heard it from management at WFED, the Nationals’ flagship radio station, which he alleges is out to hurt his established real-estate business because, well, the Nationals want it to.
“And this all started because I asked one question about steroids at a Nationals press conference,” says Vechery.
How he ended up in a position to ask the question that he says undid him is a story in itself. The Nationals view him as a sort of baseball version of Jeff Gannon/James Guckert, the reporter banished from the White House press corps amid accusations of misrepresentation and murky journalistic credentials. Vechery claims his media mission was on the level, that any errors he committed were due to inexperience. But in any case, Vechery’s story is about a guy with balls and bucks who, if only for a day, turned the Nationals’ spring training into his own fantasy camp for sports journalism.
Vechery’s done well in real estate. Well enough that since January 2003, he’s been able to buy an hour of radio airtime each week and produce an infomercial to promote his business.
But Vechery, 39, says that the whole time he’s been selling houses and leasing commercial space, he’s been thinking back to his days as editor of the Georgetown Preparatory School yearbook and wishing he’d followed his adolescent dreams of being a journalist. And he’s used his show, The Mike Vechery Open House Hour, to begin working out his journalism jones. He’s occasionally thrown non-real-estate content into the paid broadcast, such as interviews with Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, and CIA whistleblower Melissa Boyle Mahle.
And then the Nationals, rather bizarrely, ended up on the same station as Vechery. Common sense dictated that the new team would land on a station with an established sports presence. But with Opening Day approaching and no jock-centric suitor offering up its frequency, the Nationals made WFED, a little-known, 1,000-watt station that dubs itself “Federal News Radio,” its home base. (The now-foreign Baltimore Orioles have since announced that their games will be broadcast on WTEM, D.C.’s 50,000-watt all-sports station, which, unlike WFED, already rates a button on every local baseball fan’s car radio. The Nationals, as of press time, hadn’t even set up a television network to air games in the D.C. market.)
While baseball fans shook their heads at the Nationals’ move to WFED, Vechery saw it as a godsend. He hoped the arrival of baseball could be his springboard into sports journalism. And he had some leverage to make that happen: Open House Hour aired Sundays from noon to 1 p.m., in a time slot that overlapped with the Nationals’ planned pregame show for Sunday games. Vechery, who doesn’t lack for chutzpah, began negotiating with John Meyer, WFED’s manager of sales and operations, about letting the station buy back the last 15 minutes of Open House Hour for a team-produced pregame show.
“I was saying, ‘Let’s build something together! Let’s do good sports radio! Let’s do good journalism!’” says Vechery. “I was thinking we could make this a pregame program for every game. I ended up doing an end-around with journalism, but I really thought we could turn this into something good.”
Vechery says the talks with WFED management were often heated—“I’m a salesman, and I get excited sometimes,” he allows. Meyer declined to answer questions about the Vechery situation.
While the talks over the 15 minutes were going on, Vechery helped promote the team with his own dime by bringing Lars Thorn, the director of media for the Nationals, on his show as a guest. And he booked a trip to Florida so he could bone up on the team during spring training. While he was there, it occurred to Vechery that he could further the business-baseball synergy by buying advertising from the Nationals at Space Coast Stadium, its spring-training home in the city of Melbourne. He came to an agreement with the Nationals to purchase the signage rights to the visitors’ dugout for five years at $5,000 a year, plus a one-page advertisement in the exhibition-games program for another $1,250. He got a receipt after making a $1,250 down payment. Vechery said his deal also included tickets to all exhibition games and an American Cancer Society Night at the park in tribute to his deceased mother.
Vechery wanted more than advertising space from the Nationals, however. He obtained press passes from the Nationals for himself and his girlfriend, with The Mike Vechery Open House Hour listed as his news outlet. And, carrying a camcorder, he used the passes to gain entry to a press conference for Nationals manager Frank Robinson.
Rather than just observe the goings on, Vechery decided he would ask Robinson a question, and he began by addressing him as “Coach Robinson.” Oops.
From the groans of the beat reporters in the room and the look of disgust on Robinson’s face, Vechery realized he’d violated the corps’ etiquette. Turns out that Robinson answers only to “Skipper,” “Skip,” or “Frank.”
When the murmurs subsided, Vechery soldiered on and asked Robinson if he thought that asterisks should be affixed to any home-run records held by players found to be using steroids. Oops again. The room broke out in groans, and Robinson declined to answer the question.
“I was down there to do my due diligence for the show,” Vechery says. “I was there as a journalist. All the so-called real reporters were asking bland questions about the schedule and lineups, stuff that nobody cares about. I had just read the Jose Canseco book, and I asked a question that every baseball fan was asking.”
Thorn had a different take on Vechery’s press-conference debut.
“Frank Robinson had addressed all steroids questions three days earlier and was quite candid,” says Thorn, who witnessed both events. “And at the beginning of this press conference, Frank had been asked those same questions and respectfully declined to answer them. Then this guy shows up 30 minutes later, with a personal camcorder, addressed him as ‘Coach,’ and asks the questions that had already been addressed. He thought by paying money for sponsorship he deserved media credentials. It was clear that he was out of his element.”
Soon enough, he was out of media credentials, too. Vechery says that Nationals officials were harassing him for the rest of the day as he wandered around the spring-training complex. He admits, however, that he occasionally strolled into areas he later found out were off-limits, but he claims unfamiliarity with the surroundings as his defense. The day after his press-conference snafu, Nationals officials accused Vechery of representing himself as a WFED employee and demanded that he return his press pass. He was also told by John Dever, the director of baseball information for the Nationals, that the stadium- and program-advertising deal was off, and that his deposit would be refunded.
Dever declined to answer questions about Vechery.
“I think it’s all because of that steroids question, really,” says Vechery.
When he returned to Washington, Vechery received a letter from WFED informing him that the station was invoking its four-weeks-notice clause in his contract and canceling his show. The reason given in the notice was misrepresentation of his relationship with the station.
“It has been brought to our attention that you have been representing yourself as being affiliated with WFED, even after being specifically and repeatedly asked not to do so,” wrote Joel Oxley, senior vice president of Bonneville DC, which owns WFED.
Vechery points out that the WFED Web site promoted his show as if it were one of its own. “I’m a self-made businessman and proud of that. I never said I was an employee of the station,” he said. “They know that. They canceled me because the Nationals called and told them to get rid of me.”
In any case, Vechery thought he had four more weeks on WFED. But 15 minutes into the first broadcast of Open House Hour after the spring-training debacle, management pulled the plug.
“I thought something funny was going on, because the whole time I was doing the show the engineer had her legs up on the desk,” says Vechery. “Then my girlfriend calls up and says, ‘You’re not on the air.’”
Vechery received a check for the remaining shows last week. Last Sunday, the Nationals pregame show, hosted by veteran announcer Charlie Slowes, aired on WFED during Vechery’s old time slot.
Oxley says he’s aware of Vechery’s question about steroids, but he denies that the Nationals influenced the decision to get rid of the show.
“This was an issue between us and Mike,” says Oxley. “I never got any call [from the Nationals] saying remove him. We just parted ways.”
Vechery says he’s talking to lawyers about filing separate “tortious interference with a contract” suits against WFED and the Nationals. He’s also looking for another station to air his infomercial.
And, Vechery says, something good did come out of his trip to spring training. He got his first sportswriting gig. He wrote a story about Frank Robinson coming to Washington for the Georgetowner. The assignment was for 1,000 words with no guarantee the article will be published, and he won’t be paid. Now that’s real journalism.