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Meet reporter Christopher Spata, who specializes in the offbeat feature stories at the Tampa Bay Times

Tampa Bay Times features writer, Christopher Spata, is seen working at his desk. May 28, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE   |   Times]
Tampa Bay Times features writer, Christopher Spata, is seen working at his desk. May 28, 2019 in St. Petersburg. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]
Published Jun. 8, 2019

We call them "Spata Specials."

These are often the kooky, off-beat stories in the Tampa Bay Times that readers love to share or talk about. When they are assigned to or pitched by features reporter Christopher Spata himself, they have a certain defining quality.

Like when he hung out with a sullen Bubba the Love Sponge as he cleared out a near empty mansion.

Or when he shoved off with a group of determined treasure hunters along the Peace River ahead of this year's Gasparilla festivities — and one of them almost blew up the boat.

Or when he went on a total Game of Thrones bender — speed-watching all eight seasons of television's most popular show in 10 days. (For the Realm.)

Or when he followed a bunch of naked people around St. Pete.

Since I joined the Tampa Bay Times 10 months ago, I've had individual conversations with staff members about what drew them to journalism. They recalled the journals they wrote as elementary school students, or the encouragement from a middle school English teacher or time spent writing for the high school paper.

Christopher Spata experienced none of those things growing up a blue-collar kid in Ocala. He didn't really think much about writing until he had tried just about everything else.

He joined the Army National Guard after high school but got a medical discharge because of a bad back. He worked in a closet shelving factory. He sold treadmills on commission at Sears. He got paid to watch TV. ("It was my job to watch sitcoms and reality TV for hours and log every brand that was mentioned.")

Only after all that did he stumble into the news business.

"A friend who worked at the Ocala newspaper said, I'm leaving this clerk job and I can get them to hire you. To me, that was prestigious. So I worked as a clerk in the newspaper's sports section," he said.

The journalism bug really took hold in 2008 when he was assigned to cover a high school baseball game the same day that five teens died in a BMW M5 after they had driven onto John Travolta's private air strip and crashed. Some of the best players, grief-stricken, had skipped the game because friends of theirs had died. Christopher wove the story of the tragic crash into his baseball story and it propelled him on his way.

"The resulting story wasn't great, but considering how inexperienced I was, the bosses were really happy that I'd found a way to add context to the big story of the day, and I got a lot of praise," he recalls. "I also got a bit of an adrenaline rush from how things had deviated from the expected, easy, game story, and I was completely hooked."

Soon after, at age 24, Christopher decided to go to college and study journalism.

And now here he is — one of the best writers and reporters in our newsroom.

READ MORE: Christopher Spata's stories

"Christopher has the kind of storytelling gift you can't bottle," says Stephanie Hayes, our deputy editor, features. "It's a very particular radar for finding what's interesting, and it's usually far from the news of the day."

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The latest "Spata Special" ran on the cover of Floridian last month. It was about local photographer Harvey Drouillard, who stages photo shoots of naked models in crowded locations.

"At one point, while on our way to the shoot, I was jammed into this car with five strangers and Times photographer Martha Asencio-Rhine, and it was so hot in there, and honestly they were driving kind of crazy, but they were all giddy with adrenaline about this nude photo shoot they're about to do in the middle of the sidewalk, a bunch of grown-up adults on a Thursday afternoon, and I just thought 'How did I get here? How did my life lead me here?' and I kind of laughed to myself," Christopher recalls. "I get that feeling a lot."

READ MORE: Who's behind the mysterious butt graffiti all over St. Pete

At 36, this month marks his three-year anniversary at the Times.

"I like people who are pursuing unusual goals," he said. "I feel like I'm a pretty boring person, so I want to seek out the most interesting people I can surround myself with. I also love stories that have local pop cultural ties. Who else is going to write about the history of our gothic nightclubs, or Cuban sandwiches or long-lost Saturday morning TV shows, if not the local newspaper?"

MORE STORIES BY CHRISTOPHER SPATA

I sat through Disney's Hall of Presidents over and over just trying to figure out America

Is this a farm in South Tampa, or a time warp to the Confederacy

Dave Bautista does not want to be a movie star

Why does every Publix have a big scale?

Contact the writer at mkatches@tampabay.com or follow on Twitter at @markkatches.