Chicago Cubs first baseman Mark Grace served as a radio analyst
during the playoffs and so had cause to enter the press box one
day to retrieve a box lunch provided for members of the media.
Inside his lunchbox he found a candy-bar wrapper, its contents
already eaten, and a chocolate-smeared napkin--which had wiped a
man's mouth--lying like the Shroud of Turin atop his sandwich.
Grace surveyed the assembled scribes, and the scales fell from
his eyes. "You guys," he said, "are slime."
Precisely. We are slime, though the descriptive we use on our
tax forms--those of us who pay our taxes--is "journalist."
Behind the Oz-like curtain of that word, we hide: Fat guys
questioning the fitness of Cal Ripken, booze hounds berating
Mickey Mantle for drinking, skirt-chasers chastising Wade Boggs
for infidelity. Sportswriters are people who--while settling
into a free front-row seat, while complaining about the
complimentary meal just devoured--can carp at length about an
athlete's sense of entitlement. Jock-sniffing, bellhop-stiffing
know-it-alls, we are accountable to no one, while holding
everyone accountable to us.
Forget love: It's sportswriting that means never having to say
you're sorry. Sportscasting, too. A television reporter can
insist six times in a 2 1/2-minute interview that Pete Rose
apologize for gambling, while expressing a Rose-like reluctance
to cop his own nationally televised mea culpa. "I don't want to
apologize," NBC's Jim Gray told reporters a day after his now
famous Tussle with Charlie Hustle. Though two nights later, at
network knifepoint, Gray did offer a conditional apologia--the
kind that goes, "If the interview went on too long, then I'm
very sorry"--it was only as a Clintonian last resort.
Do as we say, athletes, not as we do. Sports journalists are
always advising you to retire at the top of your game, lest your
legacy be tarnished, lest you embarrass yourself. Yet every one
of us will keep working until we fall facedown in our
gazpacho--ladled out free of charge in the press tent at PGA
National. We'll ridicule a physical genius for missing a
fastball by an eighth of an inch while 50,000 strangers scream
unspeakable things at him, though none of us--not even in Little
League--could hit sand if we fell off a camel.
It's an eternal mystery, really, that anyone listens to a thing
we say: We're expense-account cheats denouncing Heisman
candidates for taking deep discounts on clothing. We're
press-pass holders haranguing Atlanta Braves fans for not buying
every last $60 playoff ticket. We're middle-class, middle-aged
white guys who insist in print that an impoverished 17-year-old
resist the NBA's million-dollar offers and go to college. Most
of us spent five years in college tethered to a beer bong, but
so what? Sportswriting is Oz: Pay no attention to the man behind
We--the minibar-clearing, Spectravision-leering,
deodorant-fearing members of the fourth estate--blithely sit in
judgment of just about everyone in the universe. We're the kind
of people who would eat your candy bar, soil your napkin, then
deny you entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame for failing to meet
our exacting standards of moral rectitude.
The Bible (which I once flipped open accidentally while reaching
for the Dewar's on my hotel nightstand) says, "Woe unto you,
scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" I don't know about these
Pharisees. But woe, big-time, unto the scribes.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO