ERNIE BANKS made the big leagues at 22, played 19 seasons for one team, hung up his spikes at 40 and said, "I've never worked a day in my life." Which is precisely how I feel now, at 40, writing my final column after 19 years at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, the only name that has ever appeared on the back of my baseball card.
Of course, Banks is universally beloved as "Mr. Cub," while the only person who ever called me "Mr. Sports Illustrated" is the current President of the United States—and only then because he couldn't remember my name.
I am frequently hailed as "Mr. Lobo," most memorably by a smiling NBA referee as he ran past me at the press table in Boston. (As a sports fan, you know your life has come to a strange and wonderful pass when the refs heckle you.)
And I am sometimes greeted in airports and restaurants as "Mr. Reilly," just as my friend Rick Reilly is sometimes mistaken for me. Asked at a book signing what it's like to be married to the 6' 4" Rebecca Lobo, Riles sighed and said, "Convenient, when you have to change a lightbulb."
All of which is to say that this magazine didn't just give me a name, it gave me several of them. When I arrived at SI as a 21-year-old, I hadn't held a single position in magazine journalism, including that of paid subscriber. My SI arrived each year as a gift subscription from the Gettys, my mother's cousins in Cincinnati. Talk about the gift that kept on giving.
In that age before the Internet, my salesman father brought home from his travels week-old newspapers—The New York Times, the L.A. Times, the International Herald Tribune—and other printed ephemera. (He once returned from Asia having ripped all the Chins from a Chinese phone book, in reference to a joke we'd enjoyed on Johnny Carson. I kept them for years.) All of which fired in me a desire to see the world, and to write about it half as well as the columnist gods—Red Smith, Jim Murray, Art Buchwald—did in those papers my dad brought home.
And, though I'd never held a passport when I came to SI, had never so much as rented a car, I have seen the world. Many worlds, in fact. A few years ago I realized too late that I'd arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with shoes still muddy from the track at Churchill Downs. It was a commingling of two great American institutions—the Kentucky Derby winner's circle and the West Wing of the White House—where the victors in the two biggest horse races on the planet end up. It occurred to me, at that moment, how blessed I was to have a foot in both worlds. Literally so, to judge by the filthy size-12 footprints on the antique carpeting of the West Wing waiting room.
Column writing, by its nature, isn't always pleasant, and I do owe an apology to Sister Kathleen, the principal at Sacred Heart grade school in Winnetka, Ill. Last fall she summoned a sixth-grader to her office and asked him where on earth he had learned the deplorable "Yo' mama" jokes he'd been telling on the playground. And 11-year-old Jack Rushin hung his head in shame and said, "From my Uncle Steve's column."
I apologize, too, for not responding to the thousands of you who have been kind enough not only to read me but also to write me. Thank you for telling me that I look like Billy Corgan (of Smashing Pumpkins), Bull (of Night Court), Marwan (of 24) or a Thumbody. Turns out I also have an uncanny doppelg√§nger who appears in ads carried on the sides of buses in Germany, and to those of you who have pointed this out, you are right, the guy does look just like me. ("Like a good-looking version of you," my wife says in her helpful way.)
Thank you for inviting me not only into your homes but also into your lives—to your birthday parties, your prisons, your birthday parties in prisons. And if I didn't respond to that nude photo you sent, well, please don't take it personally, sir.
It's a myth that goldfish will grow only as big, or as small, as the tank that houses them. But it can be true of writers. After spending most of the last 10 years in this 800-word box, I don't want to find myself straining against its sides, like a mime. Nobody likes a mime.
So I'm hanging up the black mock turtleneck. I've always promised to stop holding down this job long before the job starts holding down me. Then again, I'm from Minnesota, and Minnesotans never really go away. Like our state vehicle, the Zamboni, we resurface periodically.
For now, I can look back on 19 seasons, as Ernie Banks did, and say, in all sincerity, they never felt like labor. The columns I've written do not constitute a body of work. They're a body of play.
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I'm hanging up the black mock turtleneck. Then again, Minnesotans never really go away. Like our state vehicle, the Zamboni, we resurface periodically.