Question of the Week: Favorite Sportswriter
This week's question for PBBC authors: Who is your favorite newspaper, magazine or internet-based sportswriter?
Steve Rushin has amazed me with his writing so thoroughly and for such a long time that way back in 1992 I devoted vast expanses of my senior thesis — which broke down my nascent notions of quality sportswriting — to his work. He is the master of the phrase-turn, finding just the right verbiage to relay just the right notion in a way that makes his copy all but vibrate on the page.
The clip that will stay forever in my mind is the lede to his story that ran in Sports Illustrated in May 1992, which I referenced prominently in my dissertation:
“You've heard of the Mudville Nine? The Pittsburgh Pirates are the Vaudeville Nine. Yes, we have no Bonilla, they'll tell you. Pirates prospects aren't merely sent to Triple A, they're shuffled off to Buffalo. Who's in first? The Pirates, who are so far out front in the National League East that it's hard to tell What's in second. I Don't Know? Third place.”
The level of punnery runs deep, and doesn’t stop until the final period. The metaphors continue throughout the story: a gap between first and second place so large that you can drive Cecil Fielder through it; Barry Bonds going long like an Oscar acceptance speech and covering left field like late-afternoon shadows; pitchers racking up W’s like unlucky Scrabble competitors. The thing is, the story isn’t in service to Rushin’s writing; Rushin’s writing is in service to the story. Every quip has a purpose, helping in its own inimitable way to bring the narrative home.
My selected sportswriter may be a controversial choice: Bill Conlin. He may have been a terrible human being, but he was a tremendous sportswriter. I won't say he's my favorite, because the guy has way too much nightmarish baggage for me to feel comfortable with that term. Still, he was who I looked forward to reading the most when I was a kid. In fact, his article on the Phillies' "Black Friday" collapse, which ran in the Philadelphia Daily News on Oct. 8, 1977, became the motivation for my first book, about that selfsame team. Here are the opening paragraphs of that column:
"Dusty Baker hit a tough chopper to third, and Mike Schmidt pounced on the wicked short hop like a jaguar running down a rabbit.
"That was one out in the top of the ninth, seven straight ground balls thrown by Gene Garber. And 63,719 fans were on their feet, a shrieking chorus that all afternoon had roared with the blood lust of a Roman Coliseum mob rooting for the lion.
"Rick Monday bounced out to Teddy Sizemore. The Vet throng was chanting 'DEEEFENSE.' Eight straight ground balls by Geno. Game three was history. One more out, Geno, baby, and this was a 5-3 Phillies victory. The Dodgers had coughed up two eighth-inning runs to go with the three the crowd and plate umpire Harry Wendlestedt had bled from starter Burt Hooton in the second.
"The Dodgers were down to their suspect bench. Ancient Vic Davilillo hauled his well-traveled bones to the plate, more wrinkles on his leather face than there are base hits left in his bat.
"On deck was Manny Mota, 39 years old, one final straw for Tommy Lasorda to clutch at should Davalillo reach first base.
"Thus began the shortest, most devastating nightmare in the history of a town steeped in an athletic tradition of flood, fire and famine, a town where down seemed like a long way up.
"A funeral dirge would be appropriate at this point, Beethoven’s Eroica, perhaps, or a few choruses from Lohengrin.
"You thought the Titanic went down fast!
"The 1964 collapse took ten games. This one took ten minutes. It was like watching the shambles of 1964 compressed into an elapsed-time film sequence.
"With two outs, the Phillies met the enemy, and it was them."
Meg Rowley is someone whose style I really enjoy. She writes with an informed, whimsical quality that I hope to one day achieve in my own work. Her passage on fandom in her piece about Felix Hernandez for Fangraphs, "Hail to the King," has always been a personal favorite. It's incredibly reflective and speaks to the sort of attachment that the game and its players bring to the fans:
“It’s such a funny thing, fandom. It houses within it theft; we make symbols of human beings, transfigure persons so as to serve the function of a satisfyingly smooth stone we transfer from pants pocket to pants pocket. We carry them around with our memories and sadness, spirit them into our bits of kindness paid and received. The special ones, the ones who stick with us, who become our guys, are both magical and not so dissimilar from the restaurant where we paused and realized we were in love, or the couch where we sat and learned that our grandma was sick, the familiar street corner in our hometown where we first thought, I need to go away for a while, and go see things. They become guideposts, markers in our memories for both what they are on the field, and who we were.”
Wright Thompson. This guy can flat out go. He is a master of the third-person first-person, where he gets so deep inside his subject's head that the writing feels like first-person. I just re-read his profile of Michael Jordan at age 50 for ESPN, and loved the way he described Jordan's ambition driving him to borderline sociopathy. In the preface to his collection of stories, The Cost of These Dreams, Thompson writes, "If this book has an organizing principle, then, it is this: The literary magazine sports story is a minor but vital form of uniquely American art." In an era dominated by headline-is-the-story, video-laden, content-obsessed sportswriting, Thompson is a refreshing anachronism, a reminder that journalism can be art.
From his Jordan story:
"Back in the office after his vacation on a 154-foot rented yacht named Mister Terrible, [Jordan] feels that relaxation slipping away. He feels pulled inward, toward his own most valuable and destructive traits. Slights roll through his mind, eating at him: worst record ever, can't build a team, absentee landlord. Jordan reads the things written about him, the fuel arriving in a packet of clips his staff prepares. He knows what people say. He needs to know. There's a palpable simmering whenever you're around Jordan, as if Air Jordan is still in there, churning, trying to escape. It must be strange to be locked in combat with the ghost of your former self."
Dan Brown of The Athletic is in my top two or three. He captures people as a novelist might (if that novelist had decided that spending many hours a week waiting to interview athletes in locker rooms was a keen way to make a living). Here are two sentences from Dan's piece on new Giants manager Gabe Kapler, who Dan interviewed in his clubhouse office a few days after he was hired:
"Kapler said he was awaiting a shipment of black-and-white photos he’s collected over the years. The images are carefully curated, as are most things with Kapler. There are no frivolities with him, no wasted energy. The photos — like his diet, like what he reads, like the stats he embraces, like the words he chooses, like his umpire-mandated ejections — are selected with a specific purpose in mind."
In 1969, when I moved to Massachusetts, I subscribed to the Boston Globe and discovered almost immediately that the Sunday edition devoted an entire page to its chief baseball writer, Peter Gammons. It was filled with Red Sox news, as well as chat and gossip from around MLB. Gammons often dropped references to current politics and rock music. (He is a guitar player himself.) Some of the non-baseball references were a bit vague and mysterious, but that was Peter, just as much as in-depth knowledge of major league ball.
He's still active at The Athletic and on the MLB channel. He's got a J.G. Taylor Spink Award from the Hall of Fame. And he is modern. His Twitter handle reads: "Bernie Williams and I played with Buddy Guy."
Mike Vaccaro, national sports columnist for The New York Post, has been my favorite sportswriter for many years. He covers all sports with dexterity and skill, and his three books — 1941: The Greatest Year in Sports; The First Fall Classic; and Emperors and Idiots — are brilliant. I particularly love the way he covers baseball.
Vaccaro described his job to journalist Mike Vorkunov:
“In a world of hot takes, it’s also as important as ever as a columnist to be like a starting pitcher with a four-pitch repertoire. Yes, you’d better be able and willing to fire the coach or trade the quarterback. That’s your fastball. But you’d also better be able to be funny (that’s the curve), be imaginative enough to build a column out of nothing but your brain and your phone book (the change-up) and able to write with emotion and soul when the occasion calls for it (your slider). And you’d better be willing to mix them up, sometimes all in a given week or two.”
Mark C. Healey
Bob Elliott, writer and editor-in-chief of the Canadian Baseball Network website, is my favorite journalist. A recipient of the J. G. Taylor Spink Award at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, he not only covers pro baseball, but pays attention to amateur players and officials across Canada. He's the champion of the underdog by keeping tabs on Canadians who have received scholarships to U.S. colleges. He's a story-breaking reporter who writes wonderful features and situational stories.
Like me, Jayson Stark is a graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, but that's not the only reason I like him. The guy is funny, he loves baseball trivia and he knows history. I loved his long column when it ran in the back of Baseball America, and he hasn't changed much now that he's writing for The Athletic. The fact that Jayson is also an extremely nice guy is just a bonus. I'm lucky enough to know him personally, and was at the Baseball Hall of Fame last year when he got the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for excellence in baseball writing. It might be the last one ever given, since Spink is under posthumous scrutiny for racist leanings.
Two of my favorite scribes are Wright Thompson (21st-century division) and Bob Stevens (old-white-guys division). Wright’s written so much great stuff that I can’t trim it to one quote. As for Mr. Stevens, he managed to summarize the greatness of Willie Mays in 10 words. Describing a triple that Mays hit in the All-Star Game, Stevens wrote that Al Kaline nearly snared the ball, but, ultimately, “The only man who could have caught it, hit it.”