As a molecularbiologist at UC Irvine, David Fruman dedicates his life to solving Earth's mostvexing mysteries, though one question has continued to bedevil him for yearsnow: Who the hell is Ralph S. Brax? That name has appeared beneath a letter tothe editor in the Los Angeles Times sports section every three or four weekssince the early 1990s. Brax's letters are short, acerbic gems--screw-youhaiku--that occasionally cross over to the news pages. One typical letterbegins, with Braxian bravado, "Bill O'Reilly is the most sanctimonious bagof hot air on TV." Then it gets rude.
In three of thelast four years Ralph S. Brax has had a letter published in Sports Illustrated."He must have some unofficial record for number of letters published innewspapers and magazines," says Fruman.
Having sampled 100letters from Brax's oeuvre, I'm afraid to ask him. In print he'sterrifying--Tyrannosaurus Brax--equal parts cynic, skeptic and scold. Even hise-mail handle--OhPlease--exudes contempt. That dismissive rejoinder ringsthroughout the Brax body of work. From a 2004 letter in SI about Vijay Singh:"The best [golfer] in the world? Please."
From a 1994 letterin the Times, addressed to their legendary columnist: "Please, Jim Murray,give me a break."
Columnists--including Bill Plaschke and T.J. Simers of the Times--are favoritepi√±atas from which Brax beats candy. Here's Brax, in 2003: "Plaschke,Simers, et al., know everything about everything and won't hesitate to informus." The letters are always signed Ralph S. Brax, leaving the reader towonder: Is Sarcasm literally his middle name?
"No," saysthe disarmingly high voice, from the alarmingly kind face, of Ralph S. Brax."It's Stephen, with a 'ph'." Stephen-with-a-ph also has a Ph.D. He'sDr. Brax, though "the only person I require to call me 'Doctor' is mywife," says Brax, a 61-year-old professor of American history at AntelopeValley College in Lancaster, Calif.
His laughter tellsyou that he's joking. Brax is a professional provocateur who has, for the lastsix years, been a columnist himself. He writes a biweekly political polemic forthe Antelope Valley Press called--what else?--"Oh Please." His editorcalls him the Potboiler. To get under more skin in Southern California, you'dhave to be a plastic surgeon, and Brax has the hate mail to prove it. "Mostpeople who respond tend to be negative, but that's O.K.," he says. "Atleast they're reading me."
What comes around,goes around. And so every month Brax spends an hour writing a letter inlonghand, which he then types as an e-mail and fires off to the Times, whoseSaturday-morning sports letters page is a SoCal institution. The hate mail hewrites is an expression of love. "I like T.J.," he says of Simers, whomhe sees as a kindred spirit. "I'm a bit of a smart-ass, and T.J. knows howto antagonize people."
Last year Braxpublished a letter in the Times making the ludicrous promise that UCLA wouldsoon eclipse USC in football supremacy. (Brax is a UCLA alumnus whose lettersoften eviscerate the Trojans.) In December, when the Bruins lost to theircrosstown rivals 66--19, Brax got a letter from a man in Long Beach saying,"Well, idiot, will this shut you up?" Enclosed was Brax's letter fromfour months earlier. "He saved it!" says Brax, who then utters anastonished "Gosh." In real life he's a pussycat, his sentencespunctuated by profanity proxies like "Jeez."
He grew up inInglewood, several blocks from the Forum, and attended Morningside High School."The same school as Byron Scott and Lisa Leslie," says Brax, whoteaches courses on the Vietnam and Iraq wars. "Sports is the only thingthat keeps me sane."
Thus the letters.They are short darts with poison-dipped tips. If brevity is the soul of wit,Brax is Noel Coward. "I don't understand it," Brax wrote in 2002."Seven million people in the country are unemployed and Bud Selig still hasa job."
Writing short isinfinitely harder than writing long. Mark Twain wrote to a friend, "Ididn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long oneinstead."
"The twopeople in American history you get to know best through their letters are JohnAdams and Thomas Jefferson," says Brax of the correspondence between theex-presidents. Through his letters, we know that Brax likes Kobe but not Shaq,John Wooden but not Larry Brown and prefers Salma Hayek to Phyllis Diller. Heis heir to our Founding Fathers, the first face on our Mount Bitchmore.
Who is Ralph S.Brax? He's Pagliacci turned inside out, crying on the outside, laughing on theinside. "I enjoy misery," admits Brax, who can't resist adding,"That's why I'm a Dodgers fan."
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If brevity is the soul of wit, Brax is Noel Coward."I don't understand it," he wrote. "Seven million people in thecountry are unemployed and Bud Selig still has a job."