July 28, 2010

When a reader picks up a book about his favorite team or player, what he or she is looking for -- more than anything -- are stories. Wacky, wild, crazy, funny, bizarre, embarrassing, heartwarming stories. I have written biographies of two of SI.com's most hated teams of all time, and the reason both wound up on the New York Times best-seller list is that, quite simply, scoundrels have better stories.

When did I know the 1986 New York Mets were perfectly suited for what would become The Bad Guys Won? As soon as Ron Darling, a starting pitcher with the team, uttered the words "Wives in their snazzy North Beach Leather outfits, covered in vomit" to describe the scene from the Mets' return flight to New York after having beaten the Astros in the National League Championship Series.

When did I know the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s (the '92 team made SI.com's list) offered enough debauchery to make Boys Will Be Boys more than just another blah retrospective? Two moments: First, when a member of the team mentioned, in passing, that Michael Irvin had used a pair of barber scissors to stab a teammate in the neck. Second, when Tony Casillas, a veteran defensive lineman who came to Dallas before the 1991 season, recalled Charles Haley's first day as a Cowboy, when he draped himself in a towel during a team meeting and pleasured himself.

That the Mets and Cowboys were loathed is a testament to those stories and -- more precisely -- to the way they swaggered through seasons with unbridled cockiness and a screw-the-world mantra. It made researching both projects an absolute joy, in that I never knew what sort of insanity loomed.

With the Mets, there was Kevin Mitchell, a utility man with a bullet lodged in his back, dragging the face of Pittsburgh's Sammy Khalifa across the AstroTurf while delightfully squealing, "White meat!" With the Cowboys, there was Irvin escorting a dozen women to his hotel room the week leading up to Super Bowl XXVII. The Mets reveled in taking bars by storm; the Cowboys in slinging $100 bills at the Men's Club of Dallas. The Mets were a team featuring numerous cocaine users. The Cowboys opted for freshly rolled blunts.

As a writer, my ally was the calendar. Had I written either book 10 years earlier, the players and coaches would almost certainly have been reluctant to share. The material was too raw, and in many cases, too hurtful. But with the passing of time and the widening of guts and the mellowing of outlooks, the members of the Mets and Cowboys started to view the old days not so much as guarded secrets, but as warm memories from the Pi Lambda Phi house. It seemed to do them well to talk, an odd sort of therapy that relieved any guilt from long-ago transgressions.

"I was young," Irvin said at his Hall of Fame induction. "Youth isn't always perfect."

Perhaps not. But in the world of sports books, youth is golden. It equals immaturity, recklessness, poor decision-making and outlandish acts. The young act on impulse, and rarely worry about what others will think. When George Bernard Shaw wisely noted that youth is wasted on the young, he clearly was not thinking of sports books.

Hell, youth is my best friend.

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