The question: “What is the most surreal experience I have ever experienced?”
The answer: Competing in May 2015 on Sports Jeopardy!, an offshoot of the immensely successful Jeopardy! television game show.
Of course, in the inside-out world of the program, the art is coming up with the question to an answer that is already, if cryptically, provided. The steps that I took to compete on the since-discontinued show can be traced to a friend’s heads-up, several months earlier, about how to get on Sports Jeopardy!
But in a broader sense, my appearance five Memorial Day Weekends ago marked the culmination of a journey that began when I was conceived in Fall 1967. That was around the time the St. Louis Cardinals were edging my beloved Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Given that is how I choose to describe my origin story, is there any doubt that I got multiple doses of “sports-obsessed” in my DNA?
Here’s a recap of the surreal experience, followed by video clips of the segment that first aired in August 2015, the 49th of Season 1’s 52 segments. (The show was on Crackle at the time, then shifted to NBCSN in Spring 2016 before ending that December after 116 episodes, in the midst of its third season.)
Tipped off to the existence of Sports Jeopardy! by a high school friend (thank you very much, Mike Hammitt!), I went to the show’s website and filled out a form expressing my interest in being a contestant, as well as some of my credentials for being considered.
A few months later, an e-mail arrived, inviting me to audition on March 27, 2015 at the Hotel Westin in Chicago. There, after a half-hour “el” ride into the city, I encountered a throng of people who had descended on the Windy City from all over the Midwest: Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Grand Rapids. We numbered roughly 100, at least 90 percent men, and we were ushered into a large conference room.
I took a seat in the front row because I didn’t just want to be noticed—I wanted to be remembered, and maybe even memorable. Competitive much?
The Sports Jeopardy! crew, led by an enthusiastic, high-volume bundle of energy named Maggie, worked to infuse the room with energy. For our part, we did our best to create a pep rally atmosphere, if only to please Maggie and her cohorts and to burn off some nervous energy.
Then Maggie, bedecked in a baseball cap and casual attire, introduced a 30-question written test spanning a variety of sports. Some of the ground rules:
–Don’t look at anyone else’s paper
–Don’t worry about writing the wrong answer—it’s worth taking a guess, since all that matters are your number of correct answers.
(In fact, Maggie said, she had been telling people to guess “Guy” if they had no idea what to write and on a recent Sports Jeopardy! episode, that had actually been the correct “Final Jeopardy” answer: Ray Guy, the punter who had become the first at that position to gain induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)
-Don’t give only a last name, if you know the first name as well—for some questions, a last name won’t be enough.
-Keep moving forward. If you don’t know an answer to one question, turn your focus to the next one
Here Come the Clues
A few moments later, the test began: a pre-recorded audio, and written scroll, of those trademark Jeopardy! blue slides. Every 15 seconds, unrelenting and unforgiving, the clues came. No time to rest on the laurels of nailing one, or to dwell in the land of self-recrimination for flubbing one.
The first five questions, I was confident that I got ‘em all. Then things got tricky, murky, and, in some cases, all but impossible: a clue about a golfer’s nickname that was beyond my reach; I was stumped by a clue about a 1960s soccer player—clearly not Pele, about the only player of that generation whose name I knew; and a question about a Japanese baseball team’s nickname.
I was beginning to feel pretty clueless when a question about an NBA Most Valuable Player revived my spirit. Then a baseball question that I knocked out of the park. And, finally, another NBA question—about another perennial MVP—that wrapped it all up. I got it right, and by my estimate, it was the 20th clue out of 30 given that I had deciphered.
But would it be enough? Was batting .667 Hall of Fame caliber or bush league, particularly when stacked up against this group of fellow sports fanatics?.
The Sports Jeopardy! clue crew retreated to another room to tally the results. About 20 minutes later, they returned. With Maggie again stoking us up, the “Rocky” theme began blaring from the speakers. A stack of papers in her hands, she began reading the names of qualifiers. With each name, someone stood up and the rest of us cheered—each, like a bench-warmer straining to make eye contact with the coach, pining for our own turn.
The Sweetest Sound
It became clear very quickly that Maggie wasn’t reading these in alphabetical order. As the song neared its conclusion, though, something else was apparent: she hadn’t called my name among the more than dozen that had been announced. As the last strains of the theme sounded, my heart began to sink. Then came the sweetest sound from Maggie’s lips:
“We’ve got more!” she declared. “We’ve got more!”
They struck up the song again and my hope stirred anew, even in the face of the dwindling stack of sheets in Maggie’s hands. Nearly another agonizing minute into the song’s second round, I heard what I had been straining—had almost been willing—to hear from the get-go: “Matt Baron!”
With a mixture of joy, gratitude and relief, I rose to my feet and threw a flurry of shadow punches to my cohorts. Alive to fight another round!
When the winnowing of contestants was complete, there were 22 of us—all men, ranging from a few in their early 20s to one guy who looked to be about 60. At this point, I felt all the pressure of performing lift from my shoulders. From here on, I resolved that it was going to be all fun, all icing-on-the-cake adventure.
For the next phase of the audition, I was the first one called to the front. Two others joined me and we played a shortened mock game of Sports Jeopardy! Whereas I felt I had qualified this far by the skin of my teeth, during this stage I sensed that I did about as well as anyone else—and much better than most.
I “buzzed in” consistently ahead of my two competitors, scored the most points, and then began answering questions from Maggie. This was the part where she was probing for personality.
Favorite sports teams, favorite sports memories, my own (very modest) athletic background. Here’s where I poured it on: how Red Auerbach once chewed me out for my poor shooting form, how I met my wife playing co-ed touch football, how I came up with an inflation index for home runs that was featured in Sports Illustrated.
I shamelessly name-dropped LeBron James too, since I had interviewed him a few times many years ago. To use the sports cliché, I “left it all on the field.”
About an hour later, after all 22 qualifiers had gone through the paces, we were told that we’d all be considered for the show. But there were no guarantees. If we were going to be on the show’s first season, already nearing its midway mark, we’d get a call by the end of April for a taping sometime in late May.
Waiting for the Call
Over the next five weeks, I was in limbo. Would I get the call? If not, would I get a call to come out for an episode in the second season? Would there even be a second season?
I had kept friends and family abreast of the process, mostly through Facebook, and I’d get questions along the way. Did you get the call? Do you think you’ll get the call?
“I’m holding it all loosely,” I’d tell people. Deep down, though, it was a battle between not letting my hopes get too high and holding out fervent hope.
By the afternoon of Thursday, April 30th, the program had fallen off my radar. Immersed in my day, the phone rang with a 310 area code displayed on my screen. I picked up, expecting to hear a sales pitch or maybe a call related to one of my PR clients.
“Hi Matt,” a young woman’s voice declared. “This is Aimee from Sports Jeopardy! Do you have a minute?”
My heart leapt. At that moment, there was nobody in the world who could compete with Aimee for my time or attention. No close family member, no world leader, nobody at all.
Descending into Trivia Madness
My episode date was set: Saturday, May 23rd. The first few weeks after getting The Call, when friends would ask what I was doing to get ready, I affected a nonchalant air: “I’ve been preparing my whole life. I’m not doing anything different than usual.”
That calm, cool and collected front lasted until around May 15th. For the next week, I found myself up late at night, looking up NCAA men’s hockey champions, reviewing the list of Heisman Trophy winners, bolstering my knowledge of tennis, golf, Olympic history, league leaders in various categories, and on and on.
It became a full-on free-fall into Sports Jeopardy! paranoia: what if I miss a question that I could have answered, if only I’d snagged that one nugget of trivia? The day before taping, as I packed for my trip from Chicago to Los Angeles, I seriously contemplated lugging along a 10-pound behemoth, Sports Illustrated’s The Baseball Book. It is a treasure trove of stories and decade-by-decade statistics encompassing more than a century of the national pastime’s Major League history.
I even placed it in my luggage for a few minutes before regaining a measure of my senses: in its place I stashed four recent issues of Sports Illustrated. Much lighter, and much more contemporary stuff.
On the four-hour flight to Los Angeles, I devoured all the issues, cover-to-cover—just like I used to do when I was a 10-year-old kid and had plenty of time on my hands. Only, this was panic-cramming, my lifelong “amateur” passion now thrust into the realm of money-making pursuit. Littered throughout every photo caption, every “Face in the Crowd” honoree, every story were, in my mind, an assortment of Sports Jeopardy! bread crumbs.
Fueling my descent into sports-show preparation madness was the fact that host Dan Patrick, at the time, was a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. His “Just My Type,” a Q & A with luminaries in the sports world, appeared in every issue.
As I began to take on a sports-obsessed variation of Colonel Kurtz’s “Apocalypse Now” madness, I solicited trivia questions from friends. (A related confession: the Marlon Brando character from that 1979 film was my memory device to “lock in” the name of one of the top American divers from the 1936 Olympics, Frank Kurtz. He was featured in one of those Sports Illustrated stories that I combed for clues.)
Of the five waking hours in my Culver City hotel room, I consumed two delicious cookies provided by the front desk—and four hours in frenzied online sports research. Careening from one subject to the next, I even took a cyber-detour to the stats of Gary Allenson, the former Boston Red Sox backup catcher who I knew was born in Culver City.
Any rational observer would have seen that I had gone as certifiably nuts as the pecans in my Doubletree Hotel treats.
`Remember to Breathe’
The next morning, on the Sports Jeopardy! set at the Sony lot, I was among eight sports fanatics who walked into the Green Room to prep for the show. Our group was slotted for the final two episodes of the season to be shot over the next several hours. We consisted of six scheduled players, as well as two alternates ready if one of us succumbed to a last-second calamity.
We were shown our mini-bios to review for accuracy, given W-9s to fill out for our payday, and told to sign legal documents that admonished us that we would be committing a felony if we conspired or colluded to rig our match.
Next, we took turns in the makeup chair—a reminder that we would soon be under the bright lights of an actual game show. It was more than surreal to me. It was a blast, a once-in-a-lifetime moment that I reminded myself to savor. And there was also this reminder, one that my wife had conveyed in a text: “Have fun and remember to breathe.”
I said the phrase softly aloud, as my makeup artist applied the last few touches on my face.
We marched into the studio shortly after 10 a.m. and began a practice round, to get the hang of using our buzzers and going up against a few other contestants.
The Math Behind an Aggressive Strategy
Ever since getting the call to appear on the show, I had professed a “go for it!” game plan. I told people that I would “go for broke,” doubling down if I got a shot at the Daily Double. It may knock me back down to zero, but it was perhaps even more likely to send me into the lead—or even the rarefied air of the Top 3 point-getters from the entire season.
As a numbers-oriented guy, it was simple math: there was much more to gain than there was to lose by implementing this aggressive strategy.
The most I could win by playing it safe and aiming only for enough points to win my match: $5,000, versus $2,000 for second place and $1,000 for third. So, the maximum potential “loss” (we were all playing with “house money” anyway) was $4,000.
But if I got lucky and had a crack at clues that may just be in my wheelhouse? I stood to win upwards of $55,000: $5,000 for the match win and another $50,000 for winning the season-ending tournament of champions being held in the afternoon.
Already in the audience were two of the top three point-getters—the ones who had tallied the 50,500 (and slightly higher) points that taunted and tantalized us from the leader board directly across from our playing positions.
I wasn’t opposed to having one of them watch me later on—if he could bear the sight of seeing me play twice.
Before I could play, though, I needed to rehearse with the others. One of the Clue Crew members, Jimmy, came out and played host as all eight of us (including the alternates, still ready in case of emergency) rotated in and out of the three positions.
This was a prime chance to fine-tune our timing: just when to “buzz in” ahead of our counterparts. On any given clue, there is a good chance that at least two, if not all three, of the contestants know the question that would spark the answer appearing on the screen before us. Success or failure, then, hinged largely on my sense of timing.
Buzz in too early and I would be “locked out” for a quarter-second, which might as well be an eternity when going up against fellow sports nuts. Depress the button with my thumb or index finger prematurely and my only hope for racking up these particular points would come if someone else answered incorrectly and opened the door to a subsequent buzz-in.
On the other hand (so to speak), if I buzzed in a fraction of a second too slowly, then I had to endure the frustration of hearing someone else proclaim the words that were on my lips.
Does that sound just a wee bit stressful?
A kinder, gentler approach would be to allow each contestant to fill out his or her answer on a sheet, then hand it in for evaluation. Just like taking a test at school—or the initial screening test to see if I had the baseline knowledge to be considered for Sports Jeopardy!
Alas, the visuals of watching someone hunched over a piece of paper, scrawling answers, is not nearly compelling or dramatic enough for our fast-paced entertainment culture. Competitive stress is the undeniable price to be paid in exchange for testing my sports knowledge against a few other guys. What a great country…welcome to the big leagues…suck it up and buzz in faster (but not too much faster)!
By the end of the rehearsal, after starting out tentatively and getting shut out of most of the play, I had grown more comfortable with buzzing in. I began staking out timing turf.
Meantime, we all knocked out promotional spots in which we stated our name and hometown, along with an exhortation to future viewers to watch us on Sports Jeopardy! “only on Crackle.”
Also by this point, I knew that I would face another balancing act: consuming enough water to avoid being parched, but not so much water that I’d be hampered by a full bladder. In the 20 minutes between retreating back to the Green Room and returning to the studio with a live audience, I used the bathroom twice.
I resolved to take small sips of the bottled water that a crew member offered during breaks in the game.
Once on stage, emotions intensified. I peered out at my four guests—a brother-in-law and three friends, all of whom reside in Southern California—and, much to my alarm, nearly broke into tears. I nodded my head, gave a slight wave, then barely looked back at them the rest of my time on stage.
“Remember to breathe,” I told myself.
Meanwhile, Dan Patrick had begun his introductory remarks. Moments later, the board lit up with our categories. Game on!
In this portion of the show, after being shut out on the first eight questions (that dang buzzer timing!), I finally break through–and breathe a bit easier.