Before sports became the province of statisticians—those joyless gnomes nowadays armed with high-speed calculators—an athlete's performance was often measured by the grace with which it was rendered, rather than the impressive numbers it left in its wake. Fortunately, there are still those who can observe—feel, if you will—a contest without getting dewy about decimals. We have a lot of such people on our staff, and recently, when we came across another, we asked him to join up so that we could keep an eye on him. This perceptive fellow's name is Ted Beitchman, our newest Senior Editor, and last week he was on hand in Las Vegas to coordinate our coverage of the Leonard-Hearns fight, which begins on page 18.
"What's fascinating about boxing is that there's very little that's empirical about it," says Beitchman. "There are no statistics you can look at to prove anything. And you can't calculate courage with numbers." Beitchman cites the furor over the judges' scoring of the fight as proof of the fallibility of subjective measurement.
"The people who attract your eye in sports are the ones who are pretty to watch," Beitchman says, "not the ones who just pile up big numbers. Earl Campbell is obviously a great running back, but I'm not very impressed with the way he runs. To me, O.J. Simpson was a much more graceful runner, and therefore more interesting to watch."
When he was growing up in Philadelphia, Beitchman was enthralled by just such eye-catching athletes, most notably Sandy Koufax, Sonny Jurgensen, Elgin Baylor and Sugar Ray Robinson. "Until I was 12, I thought I was going to be a pro basketball player," he says. "I especially wanted to be Baylor. He was the first guy of whom it was said he could 'hang in midair.' That's physically impossible, of course, and yet it's a wonderful mythic quality to ascribe to a player like Baylor."
Robinson, says Beitchman, "has the capacity to make people happy, no matter where they encounter him." Robinson even added a note of poignancy to last week's fight when Beitchman spotted the former champion making his way toward the high bleacher seats at Caesars Palace. "It was sort of sad," Beitchman says. "People like Vitas Gerulaitis and John McEnroe were out front in the VIP seats, and there was Sugar Ray Robinson, who had once ruled the welterweight and middleweight divisions, sitting in the cheap seats. When he walked up the stairs, all the people in the two nearest sections stood and applauded."
Beitchman realized he would probably get into journalism even before he had decided he wanted to be Elgin Baylor, having developed a fascination for newspapers at the age of five. "I couldn't stop looking at them," he says. He worked as a copyboy at The (Philadelphia) Bulletin before enlisting in the Navy at the age of 19. Beitchman returned to school at Penn shortly after being mustered out of the service, but after a year and a half he grew restless and quit school for a copy editing job at the Los Angeles Times. After that came stints with Rolling Stone, the L.A. Times again, The Washington Star, the San Francisco Examiner, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Inside Sports and now, finally, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. But then, we're just so happy to have him we're not even keeping score.
BEITCHMAN: CASE OF STYLE OVER STATS