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Almost Famous


"One day somebody will ask: 'Whatever happened to, ah, Whatshisname? You know, the one who was so big. The number-one fella a couple of years ago. He was famous. How can we forget a name like that?'"

—Mel Miller (Walter Matthau) in A Face in the Crowd

IN THE STONE AGE of American sport, when basketball still had a set shot and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ran a column on bridge, I was briefly Whatshisname. The No. 1 fella in Little League. A bona fide contender for FACES IN THE CROWD.

You know Faces, that staple of SI that spotlights ordinary athletes who have done something extraordinary. This issue marks SI's 62nd anniversary, and it's been 60 years since the first of those 19,000 or so grass-roots stars appeared in the magazine. The name for the column derived from Some Faces in the Crowd, a 1953 short-story collection by Budd Schulberg, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who wrote a prizefighting story for the very first issue of SI (Aug. 16, 1954).

To appreciate how far I'd come to merit Face-time, you should know that as an eight-year-old on Long Island, I was thought by my fellow sandlotters to have as much of a chance of cracking the starting lineup as the mom who brought the Kool-Aid. I got in games just after the moon came up, when my coach tired of hearing my mother scream, "Play fair. Put my boy in." One day I was a late-inning sub at second base. No outs, runners on first and second. The kid at the plate hit a high pop behind the pitcher. I dived and came up with the ball. The guy going from second to third froze. I tagged him. Two outs. I stepped on second base out of confused habit, then raced for the fat kid running back to first. I beat him by four steps.

Suddenly, I was hoisted in the air, even though I hadn't scored a run and we were still losing 17--0. I'd made an unassisted triple play! I'd be in the record books! The umpire autographed the ball. My coach said, "Take it home, son, and tell your parents you didn't steal it."

He asked me if I wanted to be a Face in the Crowd. "Sure," I said, though I had no idea what he was talking about. Evidently he sent a letter about my feat to SI, because a week or so later someone from the magazine called my house. He asked my mother to mail a photo of me to the editorial offices in New York City. She picked out a remarkably indistinct snapshot—my triple-play trophy in one hand, a box turtle in the other—and stuck it in an envelope.

Alas, my mom was at the end of a six-year battle with cancer. She was in the hospital more than out of it. In the chaos of her shuttling, SI was forgotten. Six months later she died. Maybe six months after that, I found the envelope at the bottom of a pile of papers. She had never mailed it.

It would be another 15 years before I mailed my résumé to SI. The first item I listed under "Accomplishments" was "Very nearly a Face in the Crowd." Somehow, my CV landed on the desk of Gil Rogin, SI's sublimely idiosyncratic managing editor. My interview consisted of me telling Rogin about my triple play, and him telling me that I could have a job if I could screw the cap off a bottle of orange juice. Which, with a flick of the wrist, I did. "When do I start," I asked. As it turned out, the following week. I remained on the writing staff for 27 years.

Naturally, my first assignment was to choose the athletes who would become Faces in the Crowd. And my last, in 2007, was to interview Schulberg at his home in the backwaters of Long Island, where my journey began. Spry and peppery and 93, Schulberg saw boxing, with its theatrical shifts of fortune, as a metaphor for life. At the time, his own life was riding a fresh bubble of fame: He and Spike Lee were collaborating on a script about the first Joe Louis--Max Schmeling fight, in 1936. "If you live long enough," Schulberg told me, "everything comes around."

The first item I listed under "Accomplishments" was "Very nearly a Face in the Crowd."

What's your closest brush with athletic greatness?

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