The Wrong Fit
By John Schulian
I had come up in the newspaper game and I had succeeded in it, even if I was in the penalty box. I thought I had to be a sports columnist again, if I was doing any thinking at all that summer. But I was so numb that I couldn’t even get angry when my phone didn’t ring with offers. I just climbed on my bike and pedaled away, numb to a business that would take its own sweet time to acknowledge my existence again.
Finally, the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called to ask what I’d think about working there. I actually liked the town, but not well enough to make it the next place I rolled the dice with my career. The Philadelphia Daily News was a different story. I’d considered jumping to the News in ’81 or ’82, when a beguiling character named Gil Spencer was running the paper. Gil was the kind of free spirit you don’t find in an editor’s office anymore-–a Main Line kid who hadn’t bothered going to college, an ex-marine, a devout horseplayer, a Pultzer prize-winning editorial writer, and a tabloid guy in the best sense of the word. Here’s how smart he was: he gave Pete Dexter a column when Pete was a reporter best known for getting himself in bizarre situations. The first time I met Gil, he was driving me to lunch. “While we’re fucking around,” he said, “why don’t you tell me a little about yourself?” How could I not like an editor like that?
By the time I was on the market again, Zach Stalberg had replaced Gil. Zach was someone to like, too, a Philly guy who wore cowboy boots, an ex-City Hall reporter, a bit of a swashbuckler. But it wasn’t Zach who came after me. It was the paper’s executive sports editor, Mike Rathet, who had been an Associated Press sportswriter and a Miami Dolphins PR man. And I still don’t know why.
Sometimes I think it was because Rathet liked the way I wrote. Other times I think it was because he wanted to say he’d tamed John Schulian. He made a point of telling me my column could be edited, and he made sure I knew that he was making more money than I was.
I took a 25 percent pay cut when I went to the Daily News, although I’m not sure anyone at the paper except the brass knew it. I always had the feeling that everybody, in and out of sports, thought I was still pulling down six figures. It probably didn’t help that I bought a little restored farmhouse out in Bryn Mawr when most everybody else on the paper seemed to live either in the city or in the South Jersey suburbs. The way it turned out, though, I traveled so much while I was at the Daily News that I should have just rented a motel room by the airport. Between work and vacation, I was gone 195 days in 1985. I get tired just looking at that number now, but back then, I was glad to be on the move.
It quickly dawned on me that Philadelphia was going to be a hard city to embrace. Chicago still owned my heart, and the only two cities in the country that could compete with it in my mind were L.A. and New York. If Philly had any charms, they eluded me. The cheesesteaks were borderline inedible, the drivers were second only to Boston’s when it came to apparent homicidal urges, and the city’s general disposition seemed to flow from those same drivers.
It wasn’t much better at the Daily News. Once I got past Zach Stalberg and his secretary, the only people outside of the sports department who engaged me in real conversations were Maria Gallagher, a reporter who later married Ray Didinger, and Gene Seymour, who went on to write about movies and pop culture at Newsday. And Pete Dexter, of course. He was already on his way to becoming a great novelist when he told me with a straight face that he really wanted to write an episode of Bob Newhart’s TV show. Pete could always make me laugh, but something in his eyes said he knew how it felt to be an orphan in the storm, too.
That solitary feeling followed me into the sports department. I’d invaded territory to which the Daily News’ other columnists had long ago staked claim. Only the unfailingly gracious Didinger refused to let that stop him from treating me like a friend. Stan Hochman, who had always been so amiable when I was an out-of-towner, warily kept his distance, and Mark Whicker left the impression that he’d rather talk about me than to me. Not surprisingly, Bill Conlin proved harder to read than any of them. I assumed hated me – what can I say, he just has that way about him – but we bonded over our antipathy toward Whitey Herzog at the 1985 World Series.
Even if we’d all been singing “Kumbaya,” however, it would have been hard to get the sports staff together because we were always racing somewhere to cover the next big story. I had dinner a couple of times with Rathet and his delightful wife, Lois, who would die much too young, but that was about it. The one person I truly connected with was a woman who didn’t even read newspapers. She was very artsy, very stylish, and brave enough ultimately to live through four years with me.
True to form, my career butted in line ahead of my personal life as I set about re-living what I had gone through as a columnist in Chicago. But the first time was a thrill: to discover that I was good at it, to be anointed a star, to be covering the sports events that every writer dreamed of. The second time, in Philly, was borderline torture. It wasn’t because of the chilly reception I received at the Daily News, either. I’d been the new kid in school more times that I cared to count. I could deal with that, even though it was a bit disconcerting to think that I was getting along better with editors than I was with my fellow troops. What I hadn’t counted on was the toxic reaction I found myself having to the job itself. I’d long ago tired of airplanes and hotel rooms and room service meals that were guaranteed to shorten my life, but now the dread with which I faced them was spreading. I couldn’t generate any excitement for the crowds, the bright lights, or even the biggest games and fights and horse races. The stories all felt like I’d written them before. Worse, I could barely stand to read my own prose.
I needed a new challenge, not one I’d already conquered. I needed something to save me from a future as a grumpy, overweight sports columnist who was odds on to keel over dead while running to catch a plane. Shortly before dawn on the day I turned 40, I discovered what my ticket out was. It had been in my head nearly all my life.