Well, that was fun.
For some of us, anyhow. Ned Yost escaped a curious pitching decision while the A’s disastrous second half ended in misery.
The rest of us we entertained.
[Photo Credit: AP]
Well, that was fun.
For some of us, anyhow. Ned Yost escaped a curious pitching decision while the A’s disastrous second half ended in misery.
The rest of us we entertained.
[Photo Credit: AP]
The 2014 playoffs start tonight in Kansas City in a great match-up of gun-for-hire Ace pitchers: James Shields–Big Game was Worthy, remember–vs. sour ass Jon Lester. It’s likely the last game of one of those players’ careers with that their team–and even the winner is likely to split from his team via free agency as well. I don’t have a strong favorite in tonight’s game. Either way, I’m going to be rooting for the winner big time over the Angels. I’d like the see the A’s win more only because I like the idea of the ALDS being between divisional rivals. And it’d be pretty funny if the A’s pulled it out of their ass and got to the ALCS. So, let’s sit back and take it all in and be happy there’s still some baseball left–the best part, some might say. Should be fun. Let’s Go Base-ball! Picture by Bags.
Ivan Solotaroff spent much of the summer of 1988 hanging out in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium. It was a different time: The Bronx wasn’t hospitable to, well, anyone back then. This was before the Disneyfication of Manhattan, before Rudy Giuliani, before Brooklyn became a Mecca of gentrification. You could go to Yankee Stadium and buy a ticket almost any night, then go smoke a joint in all but the fanciest of box seats. It could be an unnerving place, but it was not without its charms, which Solotaroff captures in “The Regulars: 1,900 Years in Yankee Stadium.” The story originally ran in the fall of ’88 in the Village Voice, and appears here with the author’s permission and his postscript, in which he reveals his subsequent clashes with his editors both at the poker table and over what exactly constitutes “journalism.”
By Ivan Solotaroff
There’s an evil-looking man with a pencil mustache in the last row of Yankee Stadium’s right field bleachers, leaning back against a 50-foot-high CITIBANK IS YOUR BANK sign. Immaculate in his tan fedora, sky-blue leisure suit, glowing white T-shirt, and white patent-leather loafers, he snorts the end of a joint through a gold roach-clip as the Toronto Blue Jays take the field for the bottom of the second inning, then begins to twist his arms and hands and fingers in suave convulsions, his mouth stretching into unnatural shapes as he trains his magnetizing gaze on Jays right fielder Jesse Barfield, pacing the well-lit grass of right field 90 feet below. I’ve been watching this man for months now, casting his limp-wristed spell on every American League right fielder not born in the Dominican Republic, and I have learned to fear his power. Midway through this late-August Yankee homestand, I feel a tingle in the back of my skull every time he starts conjuring.
Teena, a paper-thin Hispanic woman known among the Regulars as the Secretary of Da Fence, sees the effect he’s having on me, and yells up at him to Cut That Voodoo Bullshit Out. “He isn’t no Yankee fan,” she assures me, tucking a loose blond curl back into her impromptu Mohawk. “Bullshit Voodoo Man. I show you what’s a Yankee fan.”
Teena gathers the wealth of gold chains on her neck, and her yellow ashtray eyes cross as she looks down to exhibit the ornaments to me: six variations of the Yankee logo in 14 or 16 karats; a small, diamond-studded baseball and bat, accompanying the word YANKEES; and the brightest is a solid-gold 31, for Yankee all-star right fielder Dave Winfield.
“I show you the biggest Yankee fan there is,” she says, taking my hand and leading me down to Row A to meet Chico, a happy 300-pounder in a cobalt-blue Yankee jacket with a homemade 31 sewn on the back. “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” is blasting on the P.A., and Chico’s rocking out an imaginary bass guitar, all 10 fingers moving in spidery patterns. “He’s been in the papers lots,” says Teena. “Hasn’t you, Chico?”
“Bellevue,” Chico agrees, keeping good time on the bass. “New York’s hometown paper. Intensive care. Times Square. Fifteen years.” At Teena’s prodding, he reaches in the pocket of his Yankee jacket for a half-dozen Polaroids of himself and an equally large woman having sex in a living room furnished entirely in red velvet.
“Motherfucking co’sucker, Jesse Barfield, maricón,” Chico screams suddenly. He takes his Polaroids back and pivots on his heel with surprising agility to rock the entire stadium, yelling, “Jesse Jesse fuck you messy” until the inning begins.
In 1973, Rick Goldfarb was my classmate at the Bronx High School of Science, a studious, awkward kid no one knew much about, except that he had a good head for numbers and a job selling beer at the Stadium. Over the years he’s kept a CPA practice going on Allerton Avenue in the South Bronx, from January to April 15; from April 16 through October, he sells beer in the third base box seats for the first four innings, and from the fifth on, he’s “Cousin Brewski,” the sweetest and loudest guy out here.
“How are you? How are you? How are you?” he greets me from 10 rows away. “I’ll tell you everything you wanna know about the Regulars. They’re the best fans out here. Class. They know everything you wanna know. Teena’s got it all: the batting averages, all the ERA’s, all the Won and the Lost. Bob the Captain knows every word of the ‘Gang Bang Song,’ the ‘Get the Puck Out Song,’ ‘Syphilis,’ the ‘Alibi Song,’ all the fabulous songs. And over there’s Melle Mel. A big rap star [of Grandmaster Flash], one of the originals.“
Rick’s mouth widens into a horse grin as Melle begins leading the Regulars in a rendition of “Camptown Races,” lyrics modified to honor Chili Davis’s alleged anal-passive tendencies. “Famous? Melle?” Rick asks himself rhetorically. “Oh-h, is he famous! Sees everything going on out here, too. The others tend to drift a little. Frank’s out here every day, brings candy”—
Rick excuses himself to go to the first row to join the second verse
Jesse takes it up the ass
Jesse takes it up the ass
Oh, da-doo, da-day
then climbs back up the concrete steps, saying, “Where was I? Where was I? Where was I? Frank brings candy for the kids, Turkish Taffy sometimes. He’s got a heart of gold out here, do anything for anyone. If he knows you. We got business students from Clark University, summer interns from The Nation. There’s Buttonhead, sells all the different buttons—RED SOX SUCK, TIGERS SUCK, A’S SUCK, METS SUCK, STEINBRENNER SUCKS. And there’s Yankee Joints, sells what he sells. They’re here when it’s 100 degrees, when it’s 40. They brought in a huge plate of Spanish rice last week, chicken with chick peas, stuffed cabbages, all those greens with the good olive oil dripping off. Just one big heart of gold, getting old.”
I ask Rick how many years these people have been coming here, a question that brings out the accountant. “Figure, say, 100, 115 individuals total,” he calculates, surveying the 12 rows in front of us. “Then, maybe 20, say 17 years apiece, average. So you’re looking at what, maybe 1,900 years out here. But those are just numbers,” he says, waving an index finger. “You gotta figure in the human factor.”
The Yankees, 2-8 in their last 10 games, come into the fifth inning down by a familiar four-run count. Frank and his friend Ike are already ingesting their time-honored slump-remedy: Many Jumbo Beers. It only takes Don Mattingly’s lead-off single to left to make them crazed. After the obligatory four notes of the Hallelujah Chorus sound from the Stadium organ (echoed by Frank and Ike’s “O! the Mets suck!”), they get the first 12 rows up and pointing at Jesse Barfield:
U, G, L, Y
You ain’t go no alibi
P, A, P, A
We all know your papa’s gay
M, A, M, A,
We know how he got that way
The entire bleachers looking on, Melle Mel decides to create some game-changing noise. Flipping his night-game shades up, tightening the doo rag on his head, he spies a newcomer in a Hawaiian shirt. “BOOK HIM,” he commands, and the Regulars obey bynah-nah-nah-ing the “Hawaii Five-O” melody in the man’s face until, with a longing look at the blue seats of the loge level, he’s up on his bench and surfing it.
“If the Yankees are the best team in the world,” Melle yells above the roar of a 4 train passing 10 feet behind the bleachers, “say Yo-o.” Hundreds agreeing—and #31 himself stepping up to the plate, 375 feet away—Melle has a moment worthy of the Great Cause. “Let me hear it, one time, for my man, Mr. Da-a-a-a-ve Winfield.” “Dave, Dave, Dave,” a huge crowd chants as Winfield looks at a strike. They’re still chanting “Dave” as Winfield whiffs on a second pitch, looks at a third strike, then lopes indifferently back to the dugout.
“That’s the greatest number of all about this sport,” Rick explains when I mention that Winfield’s strikeout doesn’t seem to bother anyone. “You fail two out of every three times, 66 percent of your professional life, and out here you’re God’s gift.”
Statisticians of the great American game would do well to analyze Ali Ramirez, a tall, white-haired man who brings a cowbell to the games in a bowling-ball bag. A serious student of the game, Ali won’t ring his bell until he feels a Yankee hit. For the last few weeks, I’ve been getting goose bumps every time Ali stands and unsheathes his bell; with the Yankees down now by four runs and two outs, no one on in the bottom of the sixth, I suddenly understand why: I’ve been hearing this bell in the distance my entire life, behind Phil Rizzuto’s hypnotizing psalmodies on WPIX, and I’ve learned to expect a Holy Cow (Rizzuto’s unfailing ejaculation for Yankee home runs), or at least a single, every time Ali rings the bell.
As Jack Clark steps up to the plate, Ali hammers out an eight-beat salsa rhythm, which is echoed by a drumming on the free seats by the Regulars that I can feel, 10 rows up, through my tailbone. He follows with a 16-count, then ends with a steady beat that gets a deafening ” Ay-oh” chant. It’s broken by an unmistakable crack of Clark’s bat, and a flurry of kids heading to the empty right-field grandstands, where Clark’s 370-foot homer soon lands 20 rows deep.
“The Gods have spoken,” yells Melle Mel, up on his seat and salaaming. “Prai-ai-se A-A-Ali!” Almost everyone in the bleachers obeys, a moving sight—350 people bowing in a wave to this quiet man wearing a barber’s shirt, cradling his bell and drumstick, already evaluating Don Slaught’s stance at the plate.
Apparently it’s rally time, for Ali rings out another eight-count. Before he can start his 16′s, another long-ball crack gets the entire bleachers on its feet. I look up in the klieg-lit sky over right field and see a baseball coming at me, then under my seat for my first baseman’s glove to catch it, then back up in time to see the ball falling in the trough penning the bleachers apart from the rest of the stadium—50 feet from Clark’s homer, and 15 feet to the left of the man with the bell.
Ali, ignoring the pleas of the Regulars, zips up his bowling ball bag as Gary Ward strikes out to end the inning. The timeless nature of baseball wafts over me like car exhaust as it dawns on me that I haven’t had a first-basemen’s glove for 20 years. Twenty rows up, the Voodoo Man is striking an Edith Piaf pose against the Citibank sign after his exertions.
By the seventh inning, timelessness has given way to insoluble tedium, and I organize a small press conference in the top rows with some of the Regulars: Bob Greco, machinist from Bergen County, and Captain of the Bleachers; Frank Herrera, a college baseball umpire with a major stutter, who talks endlessly about whom he’s willing to beat up for the Yankees; and a strange man named Big Bird, who seems to have an obsession with Australia: Tonight, he’s telling me about the difficulties of sending videos of the 1978 World Series to Melbourne. “He was there six weeks, six years ago,” Bob explains. “Still fuckin’ talkin’ about it.”
The Yankees seem to have fallen into the lull. Though they ended the sixth down only two runs, the Angels have pounded relief pitchers John Candelaria and Steve Shields for four runs. For Bob, Frank, and Big Bird, however, watching a routine single drop in the hole between Ward and Winfield for extra bases, it’s clearly not an important failure. “If you came here every day, you’d just get used to it,” Bob says as Teena climbs the steps to tell me to tell the world that every Yankee reliever makes her puke. “And you would grow to like it out here. You would see how it’s like the family unit. You yell a bunch of shit, 50 people yell out with you. Get into a fight, you got a hundred backers. Plus, you can see everything from out here. Call balls and strikes. You can see inside the dugouts ….”
“Tell him about the time we gave you a birthday cake,” Frank interrupts. “You were all choked up and shit.”
“Time out,” Bob says. “I wanna tell him about training camp in Lauderdale. So, I’m down there with Kevin and George, couple the Regulars—.”
“Tell him about the cake, you fuckin’ dick,” says Frank.
“Time out, Frankie. We’re driving from the hotel to the ball park, half an hour, 45 minutes maybe, looking at all these maps. After four days, we realize we’re half a mile from the stadium.”
Bob sees Frank standing up with a look of terminal displeasure, and decides to tell me about the cake: “So I’m out here one night and they’re singing, ‘Happy Birthday.’ They got a cake, so I sing with ‘em. But when they get to the ‘Happy Birthday, dear…’ part, they’re like, singing my name.’”
Bob pauses, to let the mystery sink in. “It’s my 32nd birthday. The cake’s got my name on it, too. It’s probably like the biggest thrill of my life.”
The Blue Jays take the field for the bottom of the seventh, and Frank and Bob ask me if I’ve heard their “Mickey Mouse” cover:
M, I, C
See you real soo-oo-n
K, E, Y. Why-y-y?
‘Cause we don’t give a fuck about you
“I love that one,” says Frankie. “And, first time I heard the ‘Gang Bang,’ I was on the floor.” He stands up, glares at the air an inch above his head and five feet in front, and screams, “The Yankees suck what?” then begins punching the air. Bob shakes his head and finishes telling me about Lauderdale.
“So we get some pictures, the three of us with Dave, meet some other New Yorkers in the hotel—they weren’t there for the training, they were on some other business. The biggest thrill was with Dave. What else is new?”
“Do you guys know him?”
“Yeah, we know him. Not personally, on a social level, but he sees us on the street, he knows, ‘Yeah, the Bleachers.’ We give him a plaque last year, congratulating him for his sixth consecutive year hitting 100 RBIs. He didn’t do it, he ended up with 97, but we give him the plaque anyway.”
“I met Dave once,” says Frankie.
“Time out, Frankie. So we’re down there, waiting by the gate for Dave to come out. There’s a couple guys there, had their kids or something, and we ask, ‘Dave come out yet?’ And they’re like, ‘Don’t waste your breath, Dave don’t stop for nobody.’ So he comes out, and the three of us are like, ‘Dave, Dave, Dave.’ Big smile. He’s like, ‘What the fuck are you guys doing down here?’ signing autographs. He remembers the plaque. Suddenly”—Bob pauses to savor the irony—”the guys with the kids are like, ‘Hey, we’re with these guys.’ That was like the biggest thrill of my life.”
Frankie looks hurt. “I thought it was the cake.”
“Nah, that was the biggest thrill of my life out here,” Bob corrects him, standing up and brushing off his pants as he heads down to Row A. “Talk to the man, Frankie. He’ll make you famous.”
Against the backdrop of the “Get the Puck Out Song” and the “Gang Bang Song” (a series of knock-knock jokes ranging from “Eisenhower”/”Eisenhower Who?”/”Eisenhower late for the Gang Bang” to “Gladiator”/”… before the Gang Bang”), I listen to half an hour of Frankie’s fantasy life. It’s a familiar fantasy to anyone growing up in New York: being outnumbered and having the numbers to escalate.
“I would never suggest,” he begins, “for anyone to come out to the bleachers and to hit one of the Regulars. I would not suggest that. And I would never suggest what happened here, one time, when Yankee Joints got his bag taken by some guy. He asked for it back, and five guys stood up in his face, at him. So I walked over there, and, like, 50 guys jumped up behind me, it was like a wave. I tried to explain to these guys, I got, like, 50 guys behind me, and every last one of them’s willing to hit you. They don’t need no reason.”
I ask if there are a lot of fights out here. “This dude says, ‘Whenever there’s a fight, I never see you anywhere. Why?’ Why-y? You ain’t looking in the right place,” Frank answers. He seems convinced that it was me who asked the question. “If you ever see a fight,” he says, poking my chest hard, “look under the pile. Under the pile. That’s where you’ll find me. Under the fucking pile. But, like, if, like, this guy”—Frankie points to a fan two rows back—”like, if this guy were to hit Bob or Ike or Cousin Brewski, it would be suicide. And if I stood up in … his face”—Frank points to the same fan—”and said, ‘You gonna hit me, you gonna fucking hit me?’ I swear, 20 people will come behind me.”
Frank looks at the guy suspiciously, then tells me how five enormous security guards came to the bleachers for him one day last summer. “Now, that is the most idiotic thing in the world I have ever heard. If you got 2,000 fans and 3,000 guards, then maybe, maybe you could talk. But if you got five guards, I don’t care what size they are, I’ll throw 20 midgets on you to kick your ass. But they don’t think that way over there in Security.”
I ask Frank how he came to be an umpire.
“I was playing football and I got hurt bad. I could still move around and holler, but I couldn’t ever play again. I was going home, and the bus driver asked me did I want to umpire little-league ball with him. And I enjoyed it, a lot. See, what happened was, my first game, I threw the manager out. And I said, ‘Damn, I’m 13 and I just threw this 40-year-old man out.’ So, I grew up and went to umpiring school in San Bernardino. I do college now, and the Dominican Leagues in the winter. With a little luck, I’ll make it to the majors.”
Frank looks down at the field, where the Yankees have just gone down three straight, then over at the Regulars, who are singing “Syphilis.” “One day,” he nods his head, “I’ll be umping at the Stadium, and I would have to make a close call against this team.”
Frank continues nodding his head. “See, I know that would happen,” he adds with conviction, “And the Regulars would nail me. I know that. Fuck them. I call them like I see them. And I will be a Yankee fan till the day I die. I know that.”
A 4 train rumbles overhead, and Frankie starts thinking about something, shaking his head and moving his lips with a repeated, unspoken sentence. “Everywhere I go,” he finally says it. “Everywhere I go till the day I die.”
He stands up and looks down at the first rows. “Like, I was on the subway,” he says, “wearing my cap. And this guy’s wearing a Mets cap: ‘You should get a better cap.’ Get a better cap?! What?” Frankie takes his black Yankee cap off his head and pounds it into shape. “When you win as many World Championships as the Yankees,” he tells me. “When you win as many pennants. When you win as many division championships, as many World Series as this franchise, in its history, then you come back and see me.” Frank screws his cap back on his head, shoots me a hate-look, then heads down the steps to join the Regulars. “And I’ll meet you on this train,” he yells up at me, “3,000 years from now.”
This piece was my way of hiding out for the summer of, I believe, 1988. Nothing good going on, a piece already published in the Village Voice sports section, so I got my second journalistic “assignment”: the months of July and August in the cauldron of the old Yankee Stadium’s right-field bleachers. I didn’t get to file receipts for most of the games, as they would’ve come to more than the commission. The Voice paid 10 cents a word until you got a contract, so I probably got $400 or so for the piece.
It didn’t matter. It was very well received at the Voice—a rare chance for that excruciatingly politically correct rag to publish sexism, racism, and homophobia to comic effect. Crucially, it got me into their monthly poker game as well, and they were terrible players. That amortized those unclaimed receipts several times over.
It wasn’t all good, however. The managing editor kept kvelling one game—it was getting embarrassing. When he said, “I’d love to read your fiction sometime,” I didn’t think twice, and said, “You just did.” The story’s set over one game—at 4,000 words or so, there wasn’t space for more, and I had two whole months to squeeze in. My reputation as a “piper” continues to this day, which is fine by me. I believe that all journalism is fiction. If it’s any good. And fuck them anyway.
But I did get read the riot act from my best friend at the time, who’s gay, as well as another act read (luckily before sending the story in), from another best friend, who objected to an original draft which incorporated Frankie’s stuttering. It read very funny, but it was cruel; I understood that fully only when I later learned that Frankie had passed away.
I tried to find a copy of the original story online just now, of course hopeless: Like Elvis Costello sang, “Yesterday’s news is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper.” But it did lead me to Phil Bondy’s Bleacher Creatures, written after his summer spent with the Regulars, 15 years later. I was amused, would be the kind word, that he didn’t so much as reference the earlier article, as his title was lifted from the title my story ran under: That was a creation of the Voice‘s sports editor, and I didn’t much care for the inhumanity of the subjects it conveyed. If anything, I objected, they were human, all too human. When that didn’t fly, I did manage to get a bitch-slap of a title past a different Voice sports editor a decade later: on Mark Gastineau’s pugilistic career, which I entitled “Superhuman, All Too Superhuman.”
[Photo Credit: Don Rice via Lover of Beauty]
Today marks the publication of the Library of America’s latest sports anthology—Football: Great Writing about the National Sport. It’s edited by our old chum John Schulian.
The book is terrific and I recently had a chance to chat with John about football writing and how he approached putting this collection together.
Alex Belth: When you read boxing or baseball anthologies, there’s usually a lot of material written before WWII. I noticed less material from the early decades of the last century here. What is it about the more old-timey football writing that makes it uninteresting?
John Schulian: I know how it must look: the old-timers don’t seem to get much love even though I’m an old-timer myself. What you have to realize is that football before World War II, and even for more than a decade after it, was hardly the cultural and economic behemoth it is today. Baseball, boxing, and horse racing ruled the sports pages and the nation’s imagination. Football had to be content with harbingers of a better tomorrow—Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski running wild, Slingin’ Sammy Baugh uncorking touchdown passes, George Halas and his fellow dreamers laying the foundation for the National Football League. It was swell that Fitzgerald and Irwin Shaw found inspiration in the games that gave old alums in raccoon coats a reason to howl, but the truth was still the truth: Football had some serious catching-up to do.
Beyond that, the writing it inspired was generally pretty dreary unless you have a high tolerance for adjectives, mixed metaphors, and stories dashed off by scribes who nipped from their flasks for four quarters. You’ll notice, for instance, that I made a point of not including Grantland Rice’s oft-reprinted paean to the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. To do so would have meant wading in the sludge of old Granny’s hyperbole, and I wasn’t about to risk scaring off readers that way. Instead, I went with an excerpt from his memoir about how he came to write the piece and, ever since, I’ve wondered how different it would be if Rice had been able to avail himself of today’s press-box replays and the locker-room interviews that were so scarce when he walked the earth.
Football is hard to cover under the best of circumstances, and the old-timers clearly suffered because of the primitive conditions under which they worked. I like to think that’s why I came up empty when I looked for compelling pieces by Heywood Broun and Damon Runyon. Both were memorable writers and, yet, when I read what they had to say about the sport, it seemed strained, uninformed, almost naïve—in other words, it was a lot like everything I ever wrote about hockey. I thought I would do better with Stanley Woodward, an ex-college lineman whose greatest achievements were as the no-guff, no-pandering sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. I even knew a line from the Woodward story I hoped to use. When an inconsequential gaffe made a University of Michigan lineman the villain of a major upset, Woodward wrote: “Attributing that catastrophe to such a cause was like blaming the Johnstown flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona, Pennsylvania.” Let’s just say the line may have seemed so memorable because everything Woodward wrote before and after it was so forgettable.
Now I stand before you grateful that I was able to find what I did from football’s Pleistocene era. Grateful for W.C. Heinz’s visit with Red Grange, the first of the great broken-field runners, and for Myron Cope’s hilarious yet compelling interview with the self-named Johnny Blood, a vagabond as both a player and a coach. Grateful for Shirley Povich’s generosity when covering a football slaughter, and for the hat President Truman lost after an Army-Navy game, as if he knew Red Smith was looking for a way into a column. And if someone were to step forward now with a sheaf of the kind of pieces I couldn’t find, I’d be grateful for that, too. But it wouldn’t have changed football’s status as a stepchild in those early days, and if it pains you to read that, just hold on. Things got better in a hurry.
AB: I loved the Myron Cope piece. I know he’s best remembered as a broadcaster in Pittsburgh, but he had serious chops as a writer. He’s my favorite of the Sport magazine freelancers from the ’60s.
JS: Cope was an absolute joy to read whether it was in Sport or Sports Illustrated or even True, which in the Fifties and Sixties was always showcasing sports writing heavyweights like W.C. Heinz and John Lardner and stars in the making like Jimmy Breslin, Dave Anderson, and Jerry Izenberg. Cope fit right in thanks to his sly wit and affinity for exotic characters. One month he’d be writing about Bo Belinksy, Muhammad Ali, or a self-promoting football scout named Fido Murphy, and the next month he’d be telling the sad tale of the Steelers team that sobered up for a showdown with the Giants and got hammered in a non-alcoholic way. But mention his name in Pittsburgh these days and the Cope the locals remember wasn’t just the Steelers’ funny, passionate, idiosyncratic play-by-play man, he was the inventor of the Terrible Towel, which for hardcore fans puts him in the same category as Jonas Salk.
Myself, I’m a lot more impressed by a collection of his best magazine work called Broken Cigars, and I’ve never been able to understand why someone hasn’t reprinted it. But having said that, I’m here to tell you Cope’s greatest achievement was as an oral historian. Sports Illustrated sent him out to track down the seminal figures of pro football’s early days, and he came back in 1970 with the makings for The Game That Was, which did for the sport what Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times did for baseball. The Library of America didn’t want a lot of book excerpts in Football, but I never doubted for a minute that Cope’s interview with a free spirit—wild man, actually—named John McNally would make the cut. While he was migrating from one college to another, he and a teammate wanted to earn some pocket money by playing semipro on the side. They couldn’t use their real names, of course, so they searched and searched and finally found just what they needed on a poster for a swashbuckler movie called Blood and Sand. All the man who became Johnny Blood had to do after that was wait for Cope to show up.
AB: Beyond Red Smith and Shirley Povich, I awas taken with the column on Jim Brown by Jimmy Cannon. Those are not a pair I would have put together. I knew there’d be a Jim Brown story in this collection—how could there not be?—but I wouldn’t have expected one from Cannon. I know Cannon was a great columnist in his prime but his reputation has faded through the years. Were you looking for a Cannon piece specifically?
JS: I’ve been campaigning to put together a collection of Cannon’s greatest hits for the past few years, and though I’ve yet to find a taker, I always bring up his Jim Brown column when I’m bending someone’s ear. This is Cannon at his absolute best, spending the afternoon watching Brown trample the Giants and then taking what he saw in a direction that never would have occurred to another writer. Who else would have made the leap from a game that big to a recollection of the day he first heard Enrique Caruso, the great opera singer? Who else would have used the occasion to wax nostalgic about “the old neighborhood” and a barbershop run by a guy named—stop it, you’re killing me—Joe? But somehow Cannon makes it work with the magic he had when the stars were aligned and the wind was at his back. He was always stretching, always straining to out-write everyone, and a lot of times you could hear him grunting and groaning from the effort. This time, however, his words take flight, and the greatness on display is his as much as it is Brown’s and Caruso’s.
If you’re surprised to find Cannon writing about Brown, don’t be. The year was 1963 and Brown, to the best of my knowledge, had yet to rough up his first lady friend. Later, of course, it would become a recurring theme in his life, one I suspect Cannon, imbued with dry-drunk gallantry, would have used as a reason to tee off on him, disdain him, or both. But in or out of trouble, no one ever denied that Brown is a fascinating and complex character—perhaps the greatest running back ever, a movie star of some significance, a mentor for kids swept up in L.A. thug life. His name echoes through any number of the pieces in the book, and if I’d had more pages to work with, there would likely be one or two others devoted solely to him. God knows they’re out there, splendid work by splendid writers. But when I could only choose one, Cannon made it easy for me.
AB: What stuff did you include from the ’60s?
JS: Myron Cope would have been an obvious choice, but he was already in the book. The same with Bill Heinz, whose Run to Daylight! was the first great look at the brilliance and indomitability of Vince Lombardi. I had already committed to Heinz on Red Grange, though, and I never regretted it because St. Vincent inspired so much compelling writing. Leonard Shecter stirred things up with a profile of Vince Lombardi for Esquire that was so mean it made Mrs. Lombardi cry; I loved it in my Young Turk days, but when I gave it a second look all these years later, it seemed gratuitously cruel and, much as I admire Shecter, riddled with buncombe. Sorry, no sale. On the other hand, there was the Jerry Kramer-Dick Schaap collaboration, Instant Replay, the chronicle of the Packers’ 1967 season that ruled the bestseller lists and begat a stampede of as-told-to books. We’re talking about work done nearly half a century ago, and it holds up because of the authors’ commitment to the truth. Nor does it hurt that Lombardi endures as a subject to this day. David Maraniss, the superb Bill Clinton biographer, seized on the old boy’s staying power and delivered a state-of-the-art study of Lombardi. If I’d failed to include something from it, I’d be guilty of dereliction of duty.
I feel the same about the excerpt from Paper Lion, George Plimpton’s chronicle of his training-camp exploits as the Lions’ last-string quarterback. The grace and self-deprecating wit in Plimpton’s prose always reminds me of Cary Grant’s acting. But even without my confession that I’m a sucker for it, any literate football fan should see the Plimpton excerpt coming. I hope I’ve thrown readers a curve—pardon my mixed sports metaphors—by mixing in two looks back at the Sixties by writers from other precincts. First is Baltimore boy Frank Deford, the star in SI’s crown for so many years, lifting a glass to the city’s beloved Johnny Unitas. Then there’s Jennifer Allen recreating a New Year’s Eve with her father, George Allen, after he’d been fired as the Los Angeles Rams’ head coach on Christmas Eve. Happy holidays, huh? It felt good to include the excerpt from Jennifer’s book Fifth Quarter for a couple of reasons. One, she’s an incisive and fearless writer. Two, I was able to make amends in some small way for the many times I described George as the NFL’s answer to Richard Nixon. Yes, he could be pretty crazy, loving ice cream because he didn’t have to waste time chewing and writing me off as a Baltimore fan on first meeting simply because I’d worked on a newspaper there. But there was never any doubting his genius for defense or his love for the beat-up old pros who populated his roster. And here’s what should have convinced me that my opinion of George needed an overhaul long ago: Those old pros loved him back.
Jimmy Breslin, the ultimate New York columnist, loved old pros, too. I get the feeling from his piece on Y.A. Tittle’s last stand that he may have loved them most when they lost. They didn’t whine or bitch, they just picked themselves up and moved on because they knew they had done everything they could. It wasn’t enough, but it was all they had, and there was something noble about taking satisfaction in that, the way Tittle does when he can’t quarterback the Giants past the Browns.
Breslin, like Bill Heinz before him, knew the losers’ locker room was fertile ground for great stories. But every time he looked around before he began covering the city at large, he found more young scribes in there with him. It was all part of the seismic change that the Sixties brought to sports writing. The best of them threw off the shackles of clichés and rah-rah coverage and started serving up humor and social commentary. If they could work in a song lyric by the Grateful Dead or something Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, so much the better. On the East Coast, there was Larry Merchant, who had made irreverence and unblinking insight his stock in trade first as sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and, by the end of the decade, as a columnist at the New York Post. He knew something about football, too, having been a schoolboy star in New York and a self-described “last-string halfback” on Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma powerhouses in the Fifties. What Merchant knew even more about, however, was the cultural significance of Broadway Joe Namath. I think you’ll see what I mean in the excerpt I pulled from his book … And Every Day You Take Another Bite.
At the same time, on the other side of the country, Jim Murray was playing his Los Angeles Times sports column for laughs with a mix of joy and intelligence that hadn’t been seen since Ring Lardner and his son John were running amok. Murray looked at sports in a funhouse mirror, delivering lines that are still quoted in press boxes and around breakfast tables half a century later. And oh, did he have fun when the Jets upset the Colts in the Super Bowl: “The missionaries ate the cannibals.” You know that one’s in the book.
What you may have realized by now is that none of the writers representing the Sixties were hard-nosed, watch-every-practice, grill-every-source beat reporters. The guys who fit that description best were Paul Zimmerman, who made his bones at the pre-Murdoch New York Post and later moved to Sports Illustrated, and Will McDonough, the Boston Globe enforcer who punched out a Patriots defensive back. I suppose I should mention Tex Maule, too, because it was his story in SI about Unitas leading the Colts over the Giants in overtime that bore the headline “The Greatest Game Ever Played” even though he never used those words himself. Maule was a reformed trapeze artist and former public-relations man who became a tool of the NFL in its war with the ragtag but thoroughly enjoyable American Football League. (Enjoyable, that is, to those of us enthralled with 57-56 scores and old goats like George Blanda and Tobin Rote.) But Maule’s greatest sin in the context of this book was that he was a ham-fisted writer, which disqualified him from inclusion. Alas, Zimmerman and McDonough had similar artistic deficiencies, so their prose didn’t make the cut, either, and that’s unfortunate. Without the digging they did—Zim on the intricacies of the game, McDonough on front-office shenanigans—the stylists who followed them never would have had such a well-lit path to travel.
AB: Of course, a certain amount of the material in a book like this is going to be personality-driven. Were there any specific players or coaches you wanted to feature?
JS: It would have been a fool’s mission to try to make room for all the players who’ve been anointed as superstars and all the coaches who’ve been praised as smarter than Einstein. And big games? The nation turns its lonely eyes to them every weekend, in every NFL division and college conference. Biggest game of the season, biggest of the century, no matter how many times we’ve heard it, we still love to fall for it. Everything is outsized—the players, the coaches’ egos, the alumni pressure, the TV money—and the book could easily have wound up looking like it was on steroids. But I didn’t want to scare off people by turning it into a doorstop.
The best solution I could come up with was to select pieces that were, for lack of a better word, emblematic. You want quarterbacks, you’ve got Deford on Unitas and the pluperfect Charlie Pierce on Peyton and Archie Manning, which I like to think covers a lot of territory historically. You want linebackers, you’ve got Arthur Kretchmer on Dick Butkus, and while Kretchmer was no sports writer, I admire the way he parked himself next to Butkus and hung on for dear life. on the sideline and zeroed in on the guts of the game. You want coaching legends, you’ve got the street-smart novelist Richard Price putting his Bronx accent up against Bear Bryant’s tobacco-cured mumble and Gary Cartwright, a Texas legend, deciphering what went on under that hat Tom Landry wore. We’re talking about big names here—icons, if you believe in that sort of thing—but each piece reveals its subject as a human being. With all the blather and blare surrounding football, we need to be reminded of that occasionally.
It would seem more difficult to provide that kind of perspective in a game story—twenty-two large gentlemen in the equivalent of one freeway pile-up after another—but the beauty of the best game stories is they tap into narratives as unique as snowflakes. Of course, I can’t give you every great one ever written, but you’ll certainly get the feel of them when you read Dan Jenkins merrily tweaking Notre Dame for playing for a tie against Michigan State, and Leigh Montville hanging onto his hat after Doug Flutie’s magic act against Miami. And don’t let me forget Pat Forde weaving together the many themes of Boise State’s otherworldly Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma—the trick play, the running back’s marriage proposal, the idea that a team from a state famous for potatoes could fly so high. It was one of those stories Americans love, the underdog triumphant, but in college football’s latest realignment, the power conferences have done their utmost to make sure you’ll never see anything quite like it again.
So if you don’t mind, I’m going to revel in my own favorite upset for a moment. There’s no story about it in the book, but there isn’t a red-blooded University of Utah graduate who doesn’t get all puffed up every time he thinks of it. I say this in full confidence because I happen to be one. Anyway, there the Utes were in the Sugar Bowl, the undefeated champions of the Mountain West Conference, whatever that was worth, and it certainly didn’t seem like much to mighty Alabama on January 1, 2009. The Crimson Tide strutted into the Superdome in New Orleans as if they were about to be served a tray of red velvet cupcakes, and the Utes bitch-slapped them with 14 fast, furious points. That’s right, Nick Saban: all those blue chippers of yours got bitch-slapped. They tried mightily to come back, and, brother, every Ute fan had seen that movie before. Start like your ass is on fire, go toes up before halftime. But not these Utes. Somebody else could roll over and play dead. They were going to knock the snot out of Alabama. Final score: 31–17. I’m not counting on a repeat performance any time soon now that the Utes are in the Pac-12 and praying they can break .500 someday. But I’ve still got my memories of that sweet, sweet Sugar Bowl. Damn, Nick Saban looked good with his tail between his legs.
AB: I like how you included profiles of icons like Butkus and Bryant that were written by non-football writers. The Price story, in particular, is such an odd pairing of writer and subject and yet the reader comes away with a vivid picture of Bryant. What is it about being an outsider that can make the writing and reporting so sharp?
JS: First, you’ve got to imagine the plight of the harried soul on the football beat whether for a newspaper or website. He or she has a million things to worry about—trades, roster moves, rumors, next week’s big game, players’ injuries, coaches’ lies, news stories, features, sidebars, blogs, tweets—and I haven’t even mentioned the editors who are constantly crying out for more, faster. My head hurts just thinking about it. I know there are some hardy souls out there who thrive on such pressure, but sooner or later it’s got to diminish either the desire or the time and freedom it takes to write something that’s both stylish and insightful. They reach a point where the job is as much about survival as ir ia anything else. Their eyes glaze over, and when that happens, they just want to see the finish line.
Not so Richard Price and Arthur Kretchmer. Price was a young literary lion when Playboy enlisted him to profile Bryant and Kretchmer was the magazine’s editorial director who may have used his clout to get the Butkus assignment. They could stroll in, hang out, and look around until they seized on things a weary beat writer, even in the days before the, might have taken for granted. These outsiders had landed on what might as well have been the moon, and thanks to their cushy magazine deadlines, they could revel in the newness and the strangeness of it all.
After reading what the two of them wrote, I gather that Kretchmer was less an outsider primarily—most likely solely—because of the friendship he seems to have struck up with Butkus. And if they weren’t friends, Butkus certainly didn’t mind his company. It wasn’t just that they had lunch together, it was that Butkus gave him the gift of blunt honesty, and got him on the sidelines for a Bears game, too. That way, Kretchmer could calculate the seismic force of each play, hear the cracks and the thuds and the grunts and the sound of a Packers defensive end telling the Bear across from him, “I’m going to kill you.”
Unfortunately, the Bears were dreadful in their patented way—a constipated offense and a defense that took solace for defeat in the number of bruises and broken bones they meted out. In the midst of such inferiority, there was Butkus with his unsurpassed genius for violence, playing on a knee that was essentially a garbage pail, trying to defy futility. Kretchmer was moved to ask him why he kept beating his head against the wall that way. It was a question the daily press corps had undoubtedly asked, too, but sometimes it’s the outsider, the guy who’s not part of the daily inquisition, who gets the best answer. So it was when Butkus told Kretchmer, “That’s like asking a guy why he fucks.”
Price never pried as pithy an answer out of Bryant during the week he spent in Tuscaloosa. Or if he did, he didn’t understand what the Bear was saying in that unfiltered-Chesterfield voice of his. But it all played perfectly into the pose Price adopted for the story. It was 1979, after he’d scored big with The Wanderers and before he scored bigger with Clockers and Freedomland. He went to Alabama as the ultimate fish out of water, a New York wisenheimer thrust into the land of Ku Klux Klansmen and Freedom Riders. He had an earring and the longest hair this side of Duane Allman, and he was intent on milking everything he could from the reverse of stereotypical urban paranoia.
Mercifully, the piece doesn’t come off as an attack on the South unless you’re sensitive to the mileage Price gets from his failure to understand a joke Bryant tells. “I guess that ain’t funny to you,” Bear says, scowling. No way Price can make himself confess that Bryant might as well have told the joke in Urdu. Price simply tacks his discomfort onto everything else he has felt during his visit to this strange land, and, wonder of wonders, he gets away with it. True, he doesn’t break any new ground on Bryant, but that’s not the point. He’s goofing on the Bear, albeit with a healthy dose of respect. But he’s also goofing on himself, and he obviously enjoys it, even revels in it. He might not have seemed very bright to Bryant, but he was smart enough to get out of Tuscaloosa in one piece.
AB: My favorite game story in the book is Tom Archdeacon’s column on Jackie Smith. The media crush that Smith faced after that game seemed relentless according to Archdeacon’s piece and yet he was probably the only one to notice and incorporate Smith’s son into his story. There were so many columns written about that game. What made Archdeacon’s stand out?
JS: It’s a masterful example of what a true craftsman could do in the days of p.m. newspapers if he kept his eyes and ears open. While the morning-paper scribes from the East Coast were racing to make, say, a 9 p.m. deadline, Archdeacon might not have had to file for the Miami News, may it rest in peace, until 4 or 5 a.m. If he was like a lot of us who had that luxury at some point in our careers, he used every minute of it. It’s obvious he stayed in the Cowboys’ locker room to the very end—it’s how he gets rich, novelistic details like a writer stepping on Jackie Smith’s towel and another one accidentally leaving a line of ink on Smith’s shoulder blade.
The most impressive move Archdeacon made, however, was to zero in on Smith’s teenaged son, who had come to see his father’s hour of glory in the Super Bowl and instead witnessed an admirable display of courage and grace in the wake of that dropped pass. Not every athlete handles a situation like this as well as Smith did, believe me. Some get nasty, some hide in the trainer’s room, some vamoose. But the good ones will stand there and face wave after wave of reporters, just the way they would if they were the hero instead of the goat. Smith was obviously one of the good ones. But a lot of writers were going to say that the next day. Archdeacon needed something that would separate him from their number, and young Darrell Smith, son of Jackie, was it. His presence provided a new dimension to the scene in the locker room and set the stage for his father as a sympathetic figure. I don’t recall if any other writer bothered to talk to the boy, but I covered that game and I know I didn’t. I caved in to my a.m. deadline and belabored the obvious by writing about Terry Bradshaw. When I read Archdeacon’s column the next day, I gave myself a 15-yard penalty for lack of imagination.
It wasn’t guilt or shame that moved me to include Archdeacon in the book, however. I was just seeking an ounce of justice. I’m not sure how many people read what he wrote when it ran—the Miami News’ circulation was pitiful—and here was a chance to give it a second life. Archdeacon was someone whose work I had admired instantly, and I always thought he deserved a wider audience. I can certainly think of a lot of magazines over the years that could have benefited from his prose. But he stayed with the News until it sank, and then moved to the Dayton Daily News, his hometown paper, where he’s still writing better than a lot of bigger names with bigger paychecks in bigger cities. In a way, I suppose, he’s like Jackie Smith, more of a nobleman than you ever expected to find in his calling.
AB: I also loved the John Ed Bradley piece because it talks about the game from the inside. I’m crazy about John Ed’s writing, though, so I’m biased. When you were putting together this book, did you know that you’d include one of his stories?
JS: Not only did I know John Ed would have a piece in the book, I knew which piece it would be. He’s written a multitude of keepers in his career, but he soared highest when he dug into his self-imposed exile from the LSU football program he had graced as a player and that haunted him for years afterward. Once his soulful, painful reminiscence ran in Sports Illustrated, it was obvious that John Ed had much more to say, and he said it in his memoir It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium. It’s labeled as a book about football, naturally, but it’s really about a young man’s struggle to come to grips with who he is. It’s about the human condition, which is what the best sports writing is always about.
The fact of the matter is, I don’t think of John Ed as a sportswriter, and I haven’t since the first time I read him in, I’m guessing, the early ’80s. It was a piece he wrote when he was at the Washington Post, and it began with him and LSU’s starting quarterback sitting on a hill on campus, drinking a few beers and wondering what the future held. The Post’s sports staff was brimming with talent then, the way it usually is, so finding terrific stories and columns was hardly a surprise, but this was so far beyond the norm that I was gobsmacked. Here was a guy who should have been taking baby steps at a powerhouse newspaper and he was producing work that fairly shouted he had books in him, serious books. That hardly qualifies me as a literary talent scout. There were lots of other people saying the same thing. But I’m still proud to have been there at the beginning.
AB: Did you make a conscious effort to include football stories from all levels of competition—high school, college, the pros—or did you just select what you thought was the best writing?
JS: A book like this is first of all about the writing, but it’s also about the voices of both writer and subject, and the players and coaches who are emblematic of something larger, an era, perhaps, or a signature style of play. Whether the writing came from newspapers, magazines, or books didn’t really concern me. Naturally, magazine pieces, crafted in relative leisure, are going to be more polished than newspaper pieces, which are often written in a race against deadline that leaves no time smooth out their rough edges. But sometimes those ragged edges give the newspaper pieces the immediacy and passion that makes them memorable, even collectible.
I knew from the outset that the pros and the colleges were going to dominate the book. After all, what’s football without domination even when we’re just talking about its literary side? But I wanted high school football in the mix, too, because it’s so deeply ingrained in popular culture. (It’s also deeply ingrained in me—I read everything I can find about my old school’s team.) The obvious book to turn to was Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, which is nothing less than a masterpiece. It not only reminds readers of the joy and pain of high school football—and of adolescence—it explores the otherworldly nuttiness that envelops the sport in Texas. So, mission accomplished, right?
Not so fast, buckaroo. The next thing I knew, I found “Friday Night Tykes,” a smart, insightful look at preteen tackle football in the age of concussions. Naturally, it was set in Texas, too. Bryan Curtis wrote it for Texas Monthly, which by now should have retired the trophy for the country’s best regional magazine, and he did it without getting up on a soap box or passing judgment or any of the other traps a lesser talent might have walked into. He just laid his story out there and let the reader make up his own mind. By the time I finished reading it, all I could do was borrow a figure of speech from the kids Curtis had written about: he was so beast.
AB: Football isn’t really considered a writer’s sport, at least not in the way baseball or boxing is. You edited a collection of great boxing writing for the Library of America. Did you worry that you wouldn’t enough great material to chose from?
JS: I was too dumb to be scared that I might not find enough first-rate material to fill a book. I’ve been reading great football writing since I decided I wanted to make a living playing with words in press boxes, and I knew it was out there. But I wouldn’t be foolish enough to tell you that football is a writer’s sport the way baseball used to be and boxing will be until they throw the last shovel of dirt on its coffin. There’s always been secrecy and paranoia in football, but it’s gotten worse over time. The evidence is right there in Roy Blount Jr.’s elegy to the freedom he had when he wrote . . . About Three Bricks Shy of a Load. Everywhere Blount goes on a visit to the Steelers, the team whose illustrious predecessors were at the heart of his book, he’s stymied by rules and badgered by nattering PR honks who would have been used for crow bait back in the day. And that’s no way to find out anything about anybody.
Great players can drift through their careers today as relative strangers to the people who cheer for them, worship them, maybe even want to be them. The coaches have always been on the secretive side—not enough prunes in their diet, I think—but writers could work around that. They learned to roll with coaches’ bland pronouncements and shameless prevarication because there were always players and assistant coaches who would tell them the truth or at least nudge them toward it. But for me, the real satisfaction in writing about football didn’t come from dissecting injury reports, and I sure as hell never wanted to loot a head coach’s office in search of a game plan. I probably wouldn’t have understood it anyway.
My aim was to find out what made the players tick. If I sat down with them—the good ones anyway, the ones who responded to thoughtful questions—I knew the odds of succeeding were in my favor. A lot of the guys I interviewed were incredibly bright and articulate, or they were blessed with wit and the kind of go-to-hell attitude that made them savor the massive collisions that happen on every play. If a writer can get 20 minutes with someone who fits either of those descriptions, he has a fighting chance to turn out something worth reading, at least for purposes of a newspaper piece or its Internet equivalent. For something longer, of course, a writer needs even more access. How much? Well, read Al Silverman on Gale Sayers coming back from a brutal knee injury or Michael Lewis on the high-wire lives of placekickers. Those weren’t done in a day, my friend.
The problem now as I see it—and I admit that I’m looking at it from a great distance—is that writers don’t have the kind of access my generation did. It’s that way in big league baseball, too, but football is the mother of managed media access. You’ve got staged press conferences, and only the head coach and a limited number of players are trotted out for them. Worse yet, everybody seems to be sticking to a script. Working the locker room seems to be a lost art, if indeed writers are even allowed inside. The best, or at least the most colorful, way to fight that is to do what T.J. Simers, the erstwhile L.A. Times columnist, used to do, and walk in anyway. He’d tell anyone who tried to stop him that he had a job to do, and he wasn’t about to be stopped. I confess I was never a fan of T.J.’s work once he left the football beat, but his balls belong in the hall of fame.
Much as I admire writers who aren’t afraid to tilt with the NFL’s windmills, I’m just as impressed by those who refuse to be fazed by the climate of secrecy. They’re scattered around the country, looking at football from fresh angles, turning out pieces so smart and well-reported and beautifully written that geezers like me are forced to admit that sports writing didn’t begin and end with us. Bryan Curtis, whom I mentioned earlier, is right there with the best of them. Wright Thompson, whose ode to Southern football is one of the book’s highlights, looks like he can do anything he sets his mind to as long as he isn’t writing about Elaine’s, the old New York literary saloon. (Save your tears, buddy. It was a dump whose time had long passed before you walked through the door.) Some day there will be another book like mine, and it will be brimming with memorable pieces by Thompson and Curtis as well as the young Turks I couldn’t squeeze into my collection. The bylines I’ve embraced will fall by the wayside, and time will march on. That’s the way it usually works, isn’t it?
AB: Speaking of the NFL, you covered the league when you were a columnist in the late Seventies and early Eighties. What was it like writing about pro football compared with the other sports?
JS: I was never a beat reporter, though that’s what the Washington Post hired me to be in 1975. I was supposed to back up the intrepid Leonard Shapiro, who I’m sure had years taken off his life by his constant battle to get to the truth about the Redskins. But I soon proved myself to be ill equipped for the job. Short attention span, easily bored, something like that. So I wound up doing mostly features, and most of the contact I had with the Redskins was when I wrote sidebars after big games, and of course every game they played was a big one in that town. Even their damn practices were big.
My first day at the Post—Labor Day, or close to it—the boss tells me I can meet the staff and find out where the men’s room is later. He needs me to cover the Redskins’ practice. I haul ass to Redskin Park, out by Dulles Airport, and start poking around for something to write about a team I may know less about than anyone in the District of Columbia and its surrounding suburbs. I look at the bright side, though. At least I’ll meet George Allen, the ’Skins’ coach. He’s been called the Richard Nixon of the NFL, and since the real Nixon is long gone—he lost one too many in ’73, I’m told—I might as well put myself on Allen’s radar.
I seize a moment after his press conference and introduce myself. He squints at me curiously, a John Wayne kind of thing.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
I’m about to tell him I worked on a paper there for the past five years, but he cuts me short.
“A Colts fan, huh?” he says, turning on his heel and walking away.
From that day forward, I’m convinced he thought of me as a spy, if indeed he thought of me at all.
It was no easy thing being around the Redskins, even in a limited capacity, and I’m sure it skewed my view of the NFL. Not that I didn’t encounter good men running other teams—Jim Finks and Ernie Accorsi were class acts—but the league wanted to control everything, including the media. When I became a columnist in Chicago, I went out of my way to make sure the league knew there would be no controlling me. If George Halas deserved to be smacked around—and he did, that churlish old tightwad—I was pleased to do the smacking. Was I always fair to him? No. But I was fair to his players and his coaches, and they mattered more to me than Halas did, even when I was roughing them up in print. Everybody else got it with both barrels.
That must have stunned whoever was keeping track of the press at NFL headquarters. The league was clearly on the rise, and first-rate writers—men and women I respected as professionals and valued as friends—were writing for its sanctioned Game Day program or working on telecasts that were filling the NFL’s coffers. The logical thing would have been for me to jump on board, but I’ve rarely been called logical. So a rosy-cheeked NFL factotum pulled me aside in the press box one Sunday afternoon and told me very solemnly, “You know, you’re not a friend of the league.” There was no fooling him.
AB: Concussions have become a critical part of the discussion when it comes to pro sports, and in recent years there have been several good profiles on the subject. Was it difficult to select just one?
JS: Granted, there’s only one piece born solely of the concussion epidemic that the NFL could no longer ignore, but pain—the physical kind, the kind that hits you like lightning—is a constant presence in story after story. The one that comes closest to predicting how concussions would become an issue is Mark Kram’s relentless “No Pain, No Gain.” I remember reading it when it first appeared in Esquire in 1992 and flinching at Ronnie Lott’s description of tackling someone so hard that snot sprayed out of his own nose. And then there were the after effects—the ringing ears, the brain that went blank, the breath he fought to take. We call it entertainment.
NFL players are our gladiators, and though we gasp at the collisions, cheer them, and cry out for more, I don’t think many of us realized what we were really watching until the New York Times and SI and all the rest of them started hammering away at the issue. The players accepted the likelihood that they would pay physically for offering up their bodies this way, but even they didn’t seem to grasp the extent of the wreckage inside their heads until it became an issue. Once upon a time, they could joke about the wear and tear the way Dan Hampton, a hall of fame defensive end for the Bears, did when he heard that a teammate was being forced to retire because of a horrific spinal injury. “That’s how I want to go out,” Hampton told me. “With a real showstopper.”
Then the showstopper became the brain damage that was ignored all those times some wobbly behemoth was told to shake it off and get back out there and kick ass. It was the football way. You had to be tougher than the other guy. You had to want it more, “it” being the victory that the team could cash in on, maybe even point to as a reason for raising ticket prices, while the poor son of a bitch with the addled brain just hoped he could hang on for another year or two. You know, so he could set something aside for a retirement that would make it all worthwhile.
Funny how it so rarely works out that way for old pro footballers. They figured they might not be able to play tennis or even walk up the stairs when they were 50; they didn’t think their heads would be so screwed up they’d want to kill themselves. But that’s life and death in the National Concussion League, and I suppose I could have included a half-dozen stories on it. I would have been wrong if I had, though, just as I would have been wrong if I hadn’t included any. So I went with the one that spoke loudest to me, Paul Solotaroff’s searing look at Dave Duerson’s suicide. I remembered Duerson when he was fresh out of Notre Dame and making his presence known in the Bears’ secondary, but I didn’t realize he had been so successful in business. He was one of the smart ones, a mover and shaker who was proud of his brain even when it was damaged and driving him out of his mind. That’s why he didn’t blow his head off when he pulled the trigger. He shot himself in the heart instead, so his brain would be intact for doctors to examine. I doubt the NFL will ever salute him as a hero, but that’s what he is.
AB: What I noticed about this collection is that so many of the pieces reveal a nice pairing of subject and writer. We talked about the outsiders like Price, and to my mind one of the most true and beautiful stories in this collection comes from another outsider, Jeanne Marie Laskas on the Ben-Gals cheerleaders. It is written with such empathy and humor and understanding. Even though it’s tangentially about football, it is about football culture. How did you first come to read the story?
JS: I first heard about Jeanne Marie Laskas’ story from my old pal Bill Nack. It was the year he was guest editor of Best American Sports Writing, and he raved about it. No one I know has better taste or higher standards than Bill, so I tracked the piece down in GQ, read it, and immediately started adding my praise to his whenever I bumped into someone I thought might like it. Was it a slam dunk for my book? What do you think?
The thing about Jeanne Marie is that she isn’t a sportswriter or, from what I gather, even a sports fan. She’s a reformed advice columnist and practicing academic who has the gift of being able to tap into whatever world her freelance magazine assignments happen to take her to. She has written about coal miners and migrant workers and hit men, so the NFL wasn’t going to be a problem. She left the winners and losers, stats, and college draft to the true believers whose lives revolve around them, and then she focused on the league’s concussion-damaged warriors for a series of pieces for GQ. Just when it looked like she was going to deliver yet another withering dispatch, she changed pace and wrote about Cincinnati’s Ben-Gals in a way that humanized them, understood them, and actually respected them.
There isn’t a red-blooded male writer who could have come close to accomplishing what Jeanne Marie did. Allow me use myself as Exhibit A for the prosecution. When Debbie Does Dallas – a classic cheerleader move, I’m sure you’ll agree – opened in Chicago, I felt it was my duty to review it. It probably broke my colleague Roger Ebert’s heart to give up the assignment, but he recognized the connection between Debbie and the sports page and graciously stepped aside. I don’t recall how high I stacked the praise in my review, but it was enough to get DePaul University’s basketball team, famed famed for its appreciation of high-class cinema, out to see the movie en masse. The next time I stopped by DePaul, the kids delivered rave reviews and couldn’t thank me enough for broadening their cultural horizons.
The last thing the Ben-Gals needed was to have a dirty old man like me snooping around in their lives. What they needed—what they deserved—was Jeanne Marie serving as a big sister and a sympathetic ear as they unburdened themselves of problems far more serious that lost hair gel. The stories they told her will touch even the sleaziest horndog’s heart and leave you rooting for them to catch the breaks they need and bask in the glow of the spotlight that tells them they have found safe harbor. If there’s a piece in the book I love more than this one, I’ve yet to find it.
AB: These days sports writing is more about data and analysis than prose. Is there’s still good writing about football to be found?
JS: The key to great football writing—to great writing of any kind, really—is people. Say all you want about the Packer Sweep and the Bears’ 46 defense and whatever the Harbaugh brothers are up to, it still wouldn’t register with us if human beings weren’t bringing them to life. And these aren’t just any human beings, either. They’re at the peak of their physical powers but even the best of them had failings and frailties they have to get past. Some respond to a pat on the back, others to the lash. That’s where the drama that makes for great writing is found. There’s no drama in computer printouts unless your computer freezes or your printer craps out. The drama is out there on the field when an aging quarterback remembers his greatness long enough to drive his team 97 yards with a minute to go, or some rookie kamikaze on the kickoff team, s guy you’ve never heard of before, gets stretchered off to what may be a future as a paraplegic.
What makes the writer’s task more difficult than ever is that TV has seized on the human dimension, too. Its technical brilliance was never in question. All the cameras, all the angles—I don’t know why anyone wants to watch a game in person when they can see it so much better at home. Actually, I do. They go for the tailgating and the camaraderie, the cheerleaders and the chance to be on camera with their shirts off when the thermometer nosedives below freezing. Most of all, they go for the tribal passion that sent football rushing into America’s bloodstream in the first place.
When the sport’s popularity soared, TV coverage got smarter, and it keeps doing so, especially on cable, where the cameras take fans places they thought they’d never see. The leader in all this, of course, is NFL Films, which has always been so inventive and imaginative. In my case, I was hooked for life the first time I saw Gale Sayers’ velvet runs set to jazz. Nothing about this violent game has ever been more artistic, more perfect. Every time it crosses my mind, I think of Ed and Steve Sabol, the father-son team that created NFL Films and nurtured it to brilliance. Someone should put up statues of them even if they never took my suggestion to hire Tina Turner as their public voice when John Facenda died.
On top of TV’s brilliance, there are a shrinking number of outlets for writers who aspire to use football as a means of examining the human condition. The report I just read in the New York Times about the shadow of doom hanging over newspapers and magazines sent me into a tailspin. I’ve always assumed that the Internet would provide a safe harbor for writers—you know, places like Deadspin and Grantland and SB Nation—all of which champion narrative one way or another. But this thing about online analysis getting in the way of literacy baffles me. Analysis is easy. It’s knowing what you’re talking about that’s hard.
Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I’m sure of this much: Writers will keep writing about football. They’re stubborn that way. It’s why they sit in lonely rooms or crowded coffee shops every day and hammer away at their computers, trying to capture in words what they’ve seen and whom they’ve talked to and what they’re feeling. They’re doing what the writers in the book I’ve put together did going back nearly a century. I like to think that a century from now, there will still be writers writing about whatever football has become and how it fits into the society that has emerged by then. Maybe someone will even stumble across a copy of this book of mine. I hope they think kindly of it, but if they give it the same short shrift I gave the old-timers, I’ll understand. What goes around comes around, right?
[Photo Credit: Bronko (Pro football Hall of Fame0; Cope (AP); Jim Brown (Inside Sports); Plimpton, Butkus (SI); Richard Price (Sara Krulwich/N.Y. Times); Wright Thompson (Neiman Storyboard); George Allen (SI); Dave Duerson (Jonathan Daniel/Getty); Jeanne Marie Laskas (via her website); NFL Films]
At 2:00 p.m. yesterday, David Price was at Tropicana Field throwing. I saw footage of it last night and wondered if he was out there out of routine or to say farewell to the only professional team he’s ever played for. According to Marc Topkin:
Price has been pitching for weeks knowing a trade was possible. But he had hoped, even Thursday, when he went to play golf and swung by the Trop for a workout, that it wasn’t going to happen.
“It’s tough to put into words,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “There’s absolute sadness. This is where I’ve been the last seven years. I love the guys, I love being here. It’s different.”
I also saw a clip of Austin Jackson being called off the field in the middle of an inning, hugging teammates in the dugout. Four-and-a-half years with the Tigers and goodbye. Then I saw this article linked over at Hardball Talk.
Yeah, I know this is just business–it’s Chinatown, Jake–but I couldn’t help but feel for the sense of loss these men–and their former teammates, not to mention fans–were experiencing.
Must feel unreal.
[Photo Credit: Yash Dravid via It's a Long Season]
Lester and Gomes to the A’s for Cespedes. Billy Beane going all in. Sounds like a good deal for the Sox, too.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images]
[Photo Credit: John Weiss]
Everyone makes mistakes. One of mine is that it took me a long time to appreciate Buehrle, and not just because every time he pitched for the White Sox, I had to listen to Hawk Harrelson sing his praises. I mean, Buehrle was drafted in the 38th round out of some college no one had heard of,2 he almost never hit 90 on the radar gun, and he didn’t strike anyone out. Sure, he reached the major leagues just 14 months after he signed as a draft-and-follow in 1999, but he was never a top prospect. He wasn’t much of a prospect, period. During his first full season in the majors, I fixated on his mere 126 strikeouts in 221 innings far more than on his 16-8 record, 3.29 ERA, or AL-leading 1.066 WHIP. He was a junk-tossing left-hander, and those guys always get figured out eventually.
Only, Buehrle hasn’t gotten figured out, and he’s currently helping fuel the Toronto Blue Jays’ playoff hopes. Despite pitching in arguably the AL’s best home run park for hitters for most of his career, he’s produced only one bad season: 2006, the sole year when his ERA+ dropped below 100 and, conveniently if less meaningfully, the only year when he finished with a losing record. He’s been consistently above average without ever being elite. He’s earned a single Cy Young vote just once, in 2005, and the category in which he’s most often led the league is hits allowed, four times.
He’s led the league in hits allowed four times because he throws a lot of innings, and because he gives up a lot of contact. And he gives up a lot of contact because the one thing he does not do is miss bats. After getting called up midseason in 2000, Buehrle struck out 37 batters in 51.1 innings, a ratio a tick higher than the league average at the time. He’s posted a below-average strikeout rate every season since, and has struck out 150 batters just once in his career.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images]
Jeter’s final All Star Game.
[Pictures Via: It's a Long Season]
That’s be Brazil vs. Germany. Have at it.
Yankee game thread to follow…
[Picture by Nirav Patel]
Slide on over to SB Nation Longform and check out Joe DePaolo’s profile of Mariano Rivera III:
The father is here to cheer on his 20-year-old son — a redshirt sophomore for the Gaels. Listed on the Iona roster as Mariano Rivera, the son’s legal name is actually Mariano Rivera III (although most everybody, including dad, refers to him as “Jr.”). Beyond the name and the fact that they both pitch, there are other similarities between the two. There are also many differences, one of which is that the son is a starter — at least while he is in college. “He’s too good to be a reliever at this level,” says Iona head coach Pat Carey.
That’s an assessment the scouts seem to agree with. After Rivera records the third out, the men put down their radar guns and dutifully record the pitch in their notebooks. They offer no expression, but can’t help but to have been impressed by what they’ve seen so far. This is a good lineup that Rivera has set aside in the first, all via strikeout. Seton Hall’s high-powered offense entered the contest averaging 7.8 runs per game. That offense has helped propel them to a 16-4 record and the No. 19 spot in ESPN’s unofficial power rankings going into today’s game. Iona, which plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, seldom plays a team of this caliber. It is a rare chance for the scouts to see what Rivera can do against a lineup with some punch.
As he makes his way back to the dugout, he avoids eye contact with the scouts, but he is fully aware of their presence.
“Twenty something scouts,” he says. “Most scouts ever in my life. Obviously, it’s in the back of my mind.”
Rivera takes a seat and grabs as much solitude as he can in the cramped Iona dugout. This is hardly out of character for him. Rivera is well liked among this group, and treated like just one of the guys. He is close friends with some teammates, but he tends to set himself apart, and sits alone between innings.
[Photo Credit: Holly Tonini]
He said, “Rob someone of a homer.”
That hadn’t occurred to me.
I was reminded of this yesterday when Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry’s shot in the final seconds of Game 7 in Toronto. It was a clean block. If the shot went in, the Raptors would have won. But Pierce blocked it–with his left hand–and the Nets won.
What a Boss way to end an opponents’ season.
[Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin/N.Y. Daily News]
On March 26th, the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers clashed in their ongoing battle for the first seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and the home-court advantage that comes with it. Indiana was not letting Lebron James get near the basket unmolested, and the officials didn’t see anything wrong with the extra attention beyond the nominal foul call here and there.
Lebron James, perhaps frustrated by a perceived lack of protection from the refs, rushed the basket in the fourth quarter with intent to make contact with whatever got in his way. Specifically, Roy Hibbert’s head got in the way. Lebron’s elbow felled the big fella. Hibbert crashed to the floor, attempted to get up, and promptly crashed down again.
Hibbert went to the locker room after the fall, but, by rule, was forced to re-emerge to take the foul shots resulting from Lebron’s flagrant. (The rule, Jeff Van Gundy instructed, was that Hibbert had to take the free throws or else he would be unable to return to the game.)
A few days later, April 2nd, he fell to the floor after a flagrant foul from Charlie Villanueva. He went to the locker room, receiving attention to his head and neck. He returned to that game as well.
Up to March 26th, Roy Hibbert had played in every Pacer game of the season. He shot .459 from the field, grabbed 7 rebounds and scored 11.3 points in his 30 minutes per night. Though not the most efficient big man around, this year’s numbers were in line with a career shooting percentage of .473 over 295 games through last year.
After March 26th Hibbert played in nine games, shot .272 from the field with 3.4 rebounds and 6.8 points in 26.4 minutes per game. In five more playoff games, he’s shooting .313 from the field and down to 3.4 rebounds and 4.8 points in just 21.9 minutes.
Indiana did win the coveted first seed and home-court advantage, but they now face elimination by the lowly Hawks. Hibbert’s play has been so putrid, many have taken notice. Other pundits have gone so far to say his career may be over. Here’s one of many things Bill Simmons noted about Hibbert’s recent decline:
The Law of Mutombo tells us this: You never know when a tall center is about to lose it, but when they lose it, you know right away. Artis Gilmore gained the nickname “Rigor Artis” in the mid-’80s. Shaq turned into Mummified Shaq somewhere between Phoenix and Cleveland. Dikembe was kicking ass and wagging fingers right until the 2001 Finals, when Shaq turned him into a lumbering, uncoordinated, elbow-laden mass of uselessness. Even if Hibbert is only 27, what if this wasn’t a slump? What if the Law of Mutombo struck him early?
It’s been reported that Hibbert passed concussion tests on both March 26th and April 2nd. Still, statistcal collapse such as Hibbert’s demands that we consider the possibility of severe and sustaining injury. It appears further investigation to his condition is warranted – whether the man is jacked up or not, he’s playing jacked up.
Photo by Brent Drinkut / Indy Star