I had just settled into a fold-up chair behind home plate at North Mountain Park one ordinary late-spring afternoon when a man I vaguely recognized began shouting my name.

He was 50-something, with gray hair and intense eyes, and he was furious, but “Joe” is a common name and, though he seemed to be looking in my direction and frantically waving at a Tidings photographer, I happen to be one of those people who fail to connect dots unless the dots in question stretch themselves into solid neon lines with large arrows attached.

“You can’t let her do this, Joe!” he howled.

The guy had reason to be upset. He’d arrived fully two hours before the first pitch to reserve prime real estate behind the backstop, only to see his master plan foiled five minutes into the game when, it turned out, his preferred line of site proved equally ideal for our photographer. Compromises were made and order restored, and though the story ended up being an uplifting one for the good guys — Ashland beat Sheldon 3-0 on May 20, 2002 — I was left with the uneasy feeling that perhaps this sports writing/editing gig may be a little more complicated than keeping track of balls and strikes and figuring out new and exciting ways to fit a 30-point head into a three column-wide hole.

Or a lot more complicated.

At the time I had only worked at the Tidings some six months. Now, roughly 15½ years later, I can say with absolute certainty that, yes indeed, the job was way, way more complicated than box scores, quotes, name-spellings and cutlines. That’s because when you get right down to it, this job was and is, above all, primarily about the most complicated thing of all: people. And while it would be insincere to say I’ve loved every minute of it, the truth is I’ll miss just about the whole thing.

So, yes, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, this is goodbye. After covering Ashland sports and, more recently, education, for the Tidings for the past 16 years — since late 2001 — I’ve accepted a sports reporter position at the Medford Mail Tribune. It’s a bittersweet move for me, but I’ll be leaving the Tidings sports section in very capable hands. Danny Penza, who worked for seven years at the Eureka Times-Standard, will take over as a full-time sports editor.

My time at the Tidings was in many ways as eventful as any decade-and-a-half-long stretch in the paper’s 141-year history. I’ve worked under three different publishers and four editors, saw our press get dismantled and sold for parts, personally turned off the lights in the old Tidings building for the last time and somehow survived wave after wave of layoffs until one day I looked around and realized I was the last man standing, an unexpected development which inspired solemn reflection and a profound urge to duck.

The skeptic in me saw no reason to expect much change when the powers that be decided to create a new position — a Tidings-only editor — in 2014, but Bert Etling proved me wrong, and now the paper, having pulled itself off the mat, is once again fighting the good fight.

I could fill this entire issue with the stories behind the stories, and another with the stories behind the stories that never made it to print, and have plenty left over for tomorrow’s edition.

Back in July 2006, I was covering a Little League baseball state tournament game at Hunter Park when, about 30 minutes into a tight contest between Ashland and some team from Portland, a woman wearing a tanktop and a sunburn swung open the door to the scorekeeper’s box behind home plate and demanded to speak to Ashland’s Little League president. Some loudmouth in the stands, she fumed, was cheering for Ashland with such verve, such passion, the opposing fans just couldn’t take it anymore. The scorekeeper directed sunburn lady to the snack shack, where presumably the president could sometimes be found. After she left, the scorekeeper and I looked at each other and laughed. No, the president, Roxanne Flynn, wasn’t at the snack shack at all. She was the one cheering.

How fast does time fly? One of the boys on the field that day, Evan Westhelle, now patrols the streets as a member of the Ashland Police Department.

About two years prior, late spring 2004, my car broke down only days before the Ashland High School baseball team was set to travel to Redmond for a Class 4A playoff game, so I did what all young, dedicated, overenthusiastic sports reporters do — I hitched a ride on the team bus. The Grizzlies lost 8-3 (it was Ashland great Chad Hegdahl’s last high school game) and on the way out of town we stopped at a Cold Stone Creamery, where one Grizzly after another threw a tip into the jar, thereby imploring, by way of some demented company policy, the unfortunate teenage server to sing a Cold Stone jingle no less than a dozen times. Later, during the 200-mile bus ride home, half the players huddled around somebody’s laptop (one of the Dodds boys, if memory serves) and passed the time watching Russell Crowe slash his way from slave to hero. The whole trip was a reminder that, while adults and, yes, reporters, may overanalyze every substitution and play call from the comfort of the bleachers, the kids themselves often have little trouble separating real life from the games they play along the way.

Of course, not every student-athlete has that luxury. After Glencoe beat Ashland in the 2007 Class 5A state football quarterfinals, it was almost impossible to find a player in the Grizzlies locker room who could talk about it, let alone properly vocalize their emotions, not because they were so crestfallen from the game itself but because only six days prior assistant coach Dave Kitchell had lost a long battle with cancer. They wanted so desperately to pull off the upset for their fallen mentor and suddenly, it seemed, all the raw emotions hastily patched up in the interest of self-preservation were exposed to world, and it hurt.

I’ve witnessed so many incredible moments on fields and courts and tracks over the years, it’s impossible to look back on one without wandering to another, then another, and so on, in a never-ending cycle.

I was frantically scribbling notes on press row at the Chiles Center when Ashland, playing against the big schools for the last time at the 2005 Class 4A volleyball state tournament, pulled a Secretariat against mighty Central Catholic in the final set of the championship match. Led by stars Lindsey Stone and Jessica Walters, the Grizzlies ran off 10 straight points to take a 13-2 lead and eventually earned, at 14-3, 11 match points. About 200 Ashland fans made the trip north and were on their feet chanting “ATP, ATP” (for Ashland Town Pride), when head coach Josh Rohlfing leaned over to assistant Cecily Verloop and said, “You think (Walters) is going to get stopped 12 times in a row? Because that’s how many times we’re going to set her right now.

I was in the stands at Swede Johnson Stadium on May 23, 2008, when Ashland’s Sam Gaviglio, his team trailing 4-2 with two on and two out in the last inning of a state quarterfinal game against North Eugene, lifted a fly ball to deep center field. In the third-base coach’s box Ashland head coach Don Senestraro frantically yelled “Get out, get out!” as he waved the baserunners around. It did get out, and making that moment even easier to catalogue is the fact that it was at the Carl’s Jr. right down the road not an hour later that I learned my wife was pregnant with our third child.

These stories come back to me all the time, for no apparent reason, providing context where previously none existed, and I have the Tidings and you, its faithful readers, to thank for that. They say most of this job is about simply keeping your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open. Turns out, you can learn a lot that way. It took a while for that to sink in, and now that it has I almost wish I could go back and do it all over again.

So thank you for trusting me with your stories, for opening your homes and in some cases your hearts to a stranger, for reading and, above all, for caring enough to be curious.

— Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.