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It’s the writers covering sports I miss the most

Freelance
SIMPSON COLUMN

A year into retirement, what I miss the most is what I thought I’d miss the least:

Press row and those who monger words at that great exaggerated workbench.

I said goodbye to this strange Honah Lee in December 2006, leaving the Citizen after 32 years.

Sportswriting is a curious business, and I miss the boys and girls engaged in it.

Their work can bring out the best in the worst of them, the bad in the best of them, and always comes within a pressure-cooker of haste. Allegro and fortissimo had better be their tempo and tone, otherwise they’ll be working on an assembly line at a pretzel-salting factory.

They sit there at this weird courtside laboratory where verbs and nouns and adjectives – lots of adjectives – are zapping and snapping like electrodes into the air. Thoughts burble like green goop in a glass container.

In the back of their minds there’s always one mandate, best illustrated, I think, in “Animal Crackers,” by Groucho Marx:

“If you get near a song, play it.”

Their words-eye view is very much a part of the game itself, as detached from patronage – hopefully – as the performance of the officials.

People who watch sitting down quite often know more about the game than people who watch it running up and down the court or the field. Most of them are on press row.

But you wouldn’t know it by talking to critics – fans who judge sportswriting by whether it puts their team in the most favorable light.

Sportswriters don’t always have a cold eye for talent, for sure.

Some do, most don’t. But their accounts and descriptions put the official brilliance on brilliant point guards, the power on powerful running backs and often bring about as much tingle to the back of your neck as the story line of the very same contest you watched.

Doing calisthenics with words can be a treacherous thing and these reporters have to be careful. Those who aren’t, pay the price. They can lose credibility, respect, the ear of the ones written about or their assignments or jobs.

It’s easy to get carried away as a sportswriter. It’s possible to confuse athletic success with genuine character. Happens all the time, in fact.

The truth is – and sportswriters must never forget this – that too many of our sports heroes, champions and conquerors will one day sleep in hallways, on stairs and beneath bridges like trolls, or wander the streets in utter confusion.

Rote characterizations in the analyses of ballgames can’t translate to these human disasters. Such real-world defeat requires portrayal in a completely different language.

Fans and readers should remember that sportswriters do their best to put the story in print in the most accurate, readable and hopefully, entertaining way.

Contrary to what you probably think, it’s not the easiest or the most pleasant job in the world. A publisher I worked for once told me, “There are people in this community who make 10 times your salary who’d give it all to have your job.”

Uh huh. But let them battle a gimpy computer or failed electrical socket in a darkening and silent press box about 1 a.m. on the road and on deadline – while angry, anxious editors yell colorful words of Anglo-Saxon origin into their cell phones.

Let sportswriter wannabes walk into a Major League Baseball clubhouse and discover the joy of being treated like a green fly at a picnic.

Let them understand, clearly, that which is deep and lasting as opposed to the superficial payoff of the moment – and deal with the fact they MUST go the superficial route once in a (painful) while to explain a play or a strategy or a game.

Let them interview, on deadline, a coach who talks in tongues or technicalities, or an athlete who can’t articulate the language at all and dots his incomplete sentences with “you know” and leaden clich├ęs that make no sense.

Just the same, sportswriting is not only an honorable profession, but a pleasure when the bright word falls and is right on target.

That powerful slugger Robert Frost hit a home run in a letter to a friend named Louis Untermeyer in 1916. Describing what poetry was all about, Frost said, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a lovesickness . . . it finds the thought and the thought finds the words.”

Sometimes that happens in the strange world of sportswriting, when a feeling from the heart finds a thought and the thought finds the right words.

Not all of my heroes are on the court, on the diamond or the field. A lot of them are looking out on their pond, fishing from a log called Press Row.

Editor’s note: Corky Simpson’s weekly column will end Jan. 5. It is among features that are being cut under budget constraints for 2008.

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