Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2000: Don't wear sunscreen.
If I could offer only one tip as you embark on a career in sports
journalism, that would be it. Instead, get so sunburned at your
first spring training that several players address you derisively
as "Chief Wahoo." It's a valuable early lesson, or was for me:
You're not here to be the athletes' friend, and they're certainly
not here to be yours.
"Sportswriters just want to be accepted as one of the guys,"
former CBA coach Charlie Rosen said. "I always tell my players,
Call any reporter by his first name, and he'll eat out of your
hand." Sportswriters should eat out of nobody's hands but their
own. Even that should be done sparingly. Soup--contrary to what I
have witnessed in the press lounge at Three Rivers Stadium--should
never be eaten from one's hands. The same goes for spaghetti.
Act human. Better yet, be human. Tell the readers everything they
know, but don't tell them everything you know. Take some secrets
to the grave--or no farther, at least, than the corner bar. Never
cite, to justify a story, "the public's right to know." The
public's right to know is just a self-righteous phrase to mask
the journalist's need to tell. Show some restraint.
But not too much. If a relief pitcher says race-baiting things to
your tape recorder, write them. Save the hate mail you get in
response, so your children will know what ignorance--and appalling
sentence structure--looks like.
Some of you will become TV sports anchors. When an athlete is
killed by a drunken driver speeding the wrong way on a divided
highway, resist looking into the camera and saying (with mock Dan
Rather gravity) of that athlete, "He was not wearing a seat
belt." He was not wearing a condom or a nicotine patch or number
30 sunscreen, either. But he didn't deserve to die--and doesn't
deserve, on the 11 o'clock news, to be sacrificed on the altar of
political correctness. Nobody wants a homily on safe living in
the five minutes between the weather and David Letterman.
Some of you will go into sportswriting. If so, value the second
half of that word more than the first. Any dink can give you the
score, but it takes someone acquainted with the existence of
books--Red Smith, Jim Murray--to reduce a reader to tears. Or
laughter. Or both.
Speaking of which: Reduce a reader to tears. Or laughter. Or
both. Good sports stories are full of emotions, and it's your
job to convey them. Don't be afraid--and here I paraphrase Lisa
Simpson--to pump the reader so full of sap he'll be blowing his
nose with a pancake. Nobody likes a full-time cynic. If that's
what you are, buy a baseball team.
Keep your childlike sense of wonder. Also, keep your childlike
sense of appropriate business attire and your childlike sense of
proper nutrition. Just yesterday, while on the job, I consumed
an ice cream sundae from an inverted plastic batting helmet
(game-worn, to judge by the taste). Know how lucky you are not
to be working for a living. Never mention this fact when asking
for a raise.
More important than your inner child is an outer child. Have one.
If nothing else, he or she will allow you to pre-board airplanes.
The first time you step onto the grass at Yankee Stadium, you
will feel unworthy. Remember: You are unworthy. The guy at the
plate spent nine years in the minors trying to get here, and you
spent 90 seconds faxing in a press-credential application. So
stand up straight. Tuck in your shirt. Show some respect.
And some pity. You already know that you're going to the World
Series. You're also going to the Super Bowl, the World Cup, the
Olympics, the Masters and the Final Four. That's just in 2002.
The world's greatest athletes will see fewer spectacles than the
world's worst journalists, and that is something you can take to
the bank--in lieu of actual money, of which there will be little.
Journalism has other rewards. You'll comfort the afflicted.
You'll afflict the comfortable. You'll ask impolite questions of
powerful people without physical repercussion.
Whatever other wonders you'll witness in this glorious
profession--the crowning of champions, the changing of history,
a man eating spaghetti with his hands--are known only to God.
But trust me on the sunscreen.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO