I still remember the day Bob Plain earned my respect in the newsroom.

We were going through our various after-deadline rituals &

Myles Murphy had just deleted a page he spent two hours designing, Mike Green was 8,000 words into his shortest-ever column and I was bench pressing two vending machines and a water dispenser &

when our new, fresh-faced, right-out-of-college page designer, Scott Steussy, shared something that had been on his mind.

"We should get a pool table or a foosball table and put them in the back" he said. "We could play each other on breaks. Wouldn't that be ...." But before Steussy could finish the thought, Plain, sporting a blazer and matching tie, jumped out of his chair and interjected a hard dose of reality born of 10-plus years in this cold, hard, lonely business.

"How about a ping pong table," he said.

Now, a year later, the Tidings is a different place. Murphy doesn't have a "delete" key, Plain apparently lost his blazer and I'm up to three vending machines. Also, we play ping pong. Lots of it.

Actually, it never really stops. While the plates are hammering away their inky song, burning out page after page 20 miles to the north, we're ponging it up here. While the city council plays pin the red tail on the budget during its weekly sleep-over, Murphy is counseling Steussy on the fundamentals of trash talk. While actors dig deep at the Shakespeare Festival, we're directing the next episode of "Blazing Paddles."

So, who's the best? We all have our strengths. I'm as quick as a slightly injured cat. Murphy has the power of a malnourished boa constrictor. Steussy is, uh, great at designing pages. But the undisputed champion of the Tidings' ping pong table is Plain &

which brings us to today.

At approximately 11 a.m., the man who has covered the city like a blanket made of Velcro since early 2005 will curse at, throttle and eventually shut down his computer for the last time before heading off to Ithaca, New York, where he will start his new job as an editor for the Ithaca Times. I know what you're thinking: "Oh no! Who will carry the ping pong torch at the Tidings?"

Relax, ping pong at 1661 Siskiyou Blvd. will survive this setback, just as it survived the great broken net disaster of 2006, and the burned out light bulb fiasco before that.

Still, it won't quite be the same. Plain's vivacious laugh and talent for turning innocent telephone conversations into comedy skits worthy of Saturday Night Live has become as much a part of this office as the crackling of the police scanner, the humming of the printer and, well, the ting-ting-ting of the ping pong room.

He will be missed.

But, before he leaves, Plain and yours truly will square off in one final mega-match. Call it "The Big Boom in the Break Room." The winner will be crowned the all-time ADT ping pong champion. The loser will cry all the way to New York.

I've taken all the necessary steps to ensure victory. I've been writing extra-long stories to strengthen my fingers. My headphones are cranked up full blast to simulate the stress of Plain's verbal jabs. I've watched Forest Gump three times, including the special features. Now, it's time to say goodbye, Tidings style.

So dig out that blazer, Plain, and you might want to iron that tie, too, because while you may not leave here a winner, you can at least go out dressed like one.

Now let's get this over with. I've got an obituary to write. A piece of the Tidings just died.

Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.