One of the first lessons you learn in the press box is that you'll encounter two types of writers: those who accept and encourage you from Day 1, and those who look right through you until you've paid your dues.
The latter camp outnumbered the former when I joined the Red Sox beat for real in 1999. There were a lot of crusty old-timers in those days, and it's not that they weren't friendly, necessarily, but they weren't going to go out of their way to point you in the right direction, either. They had a job to do, and it wasn't babysitting.
Then there was Nick Cafardo. I began covering pro sports at the Eagle-Tribune in Lawrence as a nobody with a freaking ponytail. He had no reason to pay any attention to me, but was immediately friendly, warm, and kind.
"Tomase," he said. "Is that Italian? I knew I liked you for a reason."
Nick understood what I was going through better than most, because not only had he transitioned from baseball to football, he had also jumped from a suburban paper (he started at the Patriot-Ledger in Quincy) to one of Boston's major dailies.
"You're not afraid to mix it up," he said. "We need more of that. You'll kill it."
He made a career out of breaking stories that moved the needle, whether it was parlaying his friendship with mercurial Patriots wideout Terry Glenn into a series of exclusives 20 years ago, or more recently breaking the news that Red Sox left-hander David Price had berated NESN broadcaster Dennis Eckersley on a flight to Toronto. That story captured Nick's instincts in a nutshell. I used to joke that he belonged at the Herald, because he did as much to advance the soap opera as any tabloid writer.
His relaxed, easygoing demeanor and sardonic wit belied a killer instinct. He didn't live to antagonize for antagonism's sake, but he had no problem going there if the reporting justified it. Scrolling through some old text messages, I came across this beauty from a couple of years ago.
"Who on your station called me a homer?" he asked.
"No idea, but definitely a moron," I replied.
Nick was no homer. My old Herald colleague, Mike Felger, used to talk about his nightly anxiety attack walking to the Charlestown newsstand for a first-edition Globe, fearing what Patriots story Nick had broken that he'd need to chase the next day. It could involve Glenn's latest contract demand, or an exclusive from notoriously tight-lipped tight end Ben Coates, or maybe something regarding quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Nick cultivated great relationships with all of them -- not to mention scouts, players, agents, and executives across both sports -- and I constantly marveled at how he did it. He wasn't pushy or intrusive. Just friendly and understated and a tremendous listener. I wondered if troubled athletes like Glenn gravitated to him because they found it therapeutic. In an age when so many writers make their name via analytics, Nick did it the old-fashioned way, by building relationships.
He also exhibited the ultimate sign of confidence -- magnanimity. We technically competed on the Red Sox beat, but those rare times I beat him on a story, he was generous with praise. I remember his indignation over a small story in the grand scheme of things, Red Sox right-hander Brad Penny calling in 2009 to tell me he had requested his release.
"How'd you get that!" Nick exclaimed. "I was working on that all day and then that (expletive) called you!?!"
I had known Nick for almost 20 years when I broke some news I wasn't sure he'd like. My last name may be Tomase, but I had to come clean.
My mom's a Harrington. I'm half Irish.
"Really?" he said. "That's too bad."
We both laughed. I can't even begin to convey how much I'm going to miss the guy. My heart goes out to his immediate family, and his journalism one, too. We just lost one of the great ones.