Former SI writer Rick Reilly pays tribute to Gary Smith

Writers and editors constantly marveled at Smith's ability to get deep into a story and uncover information that no one else could get subjects to reveal.
Bill Frakes/SI

Former Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly worked alongside Gary Smith for more than 20 years and the two wrote some of the most memorable stories in the magazine's history. Smith announced his retirement from magazine writing on Monday after 32 years at SI. When asked for his favorite Smith story, Reilly chose Damned Yankee, a 1997 story about a tormented Yankees catcher named John Malangone (Smith also identified that as one of his most memorable pieces). Here are Reilly's thoughts on Smith and the story.

It's an odd thing to have a god as a buddy, but Gary Smith is that to me. We've been drinking, traveling and writing pals for almost 30 years now. We've been roommates, co-conspirators, therapists, trip-advisors and each other's coat to tug on. And yet every time he writes, he becomes my teacher.

S.L. PRICE: The Greatest: Gary Smith is retiring from magazine writing

Of all the rich Gary Smith tapestries that hang, my favorite is Damned Yankee, the story of a five-year-old boy who accidentally kills his best friend with a homemade javelin and torments himself for 60 years over it, ruining a potentially great catching career with the Yankees.

Read it and see if you find a single "he said/she said" quote in it. There are none, only scenes, woven so perfectly together that you feel as if you're in a movie that's too good to go get popcorn. Gary never starts writing a piece until he's spoken to 50 people. And not just once. Often, he calls them back a dozen times after the first visit. I've been in the room when he does it. "Nancy, I'm so sorry to call you again on this ... yes, I know, sorry, sorry ... right, this is the last time ... right, really sorry ... but I just want to make SURE I know what that moment was like." And an hour later, Nancy will finally get to hang up.

SI writers and editors pick their favorite Gary Smith stories

Read it and be rewarded with all the detail. With that kind of inexhaustible reporting, he doesn't need quotes. He can show you. He can plop you down right there, in East Harlem, in 1952, on a sweltering day "up on the roof with Uncle Duffy's pigeons ... playing checkers and eating linguini with red sauce bare-chested."

Read it and notice how luxuriously he treats you. The blocks of writing are short, the narration is constantly broken up, the time shifted, the scenes changed, the pace furious. You are swept along as if in rushing rapids and Gary has the only paddle and you are happy. You're in that wonderful place that reading so rarely gives you, hoping it never ends.

Read it and tell me if you can find a single sentence that doesn't absolutely have to be there. Gary and I and bottles of Zinfandel have ruminated on good writing for hours at a time. But the thing that matters to him the most -- and is the most exhausting -- is ridding his pieces of every sentence that isn't essential, no matter how tenderly he loved it. That's why it takes him two months to finish most of his pieces. That's why he cocoons himself in his attic in Charleston. That's why his wife Sally doesn't see him for days at a time. That's why, when he comes out, at last, he looks rumpled and bleary and confused, like a man who's been locked in a hot box. Wait, what day is it?

Gary Smith is the finest magazine writer that's ever been -- on any subject -- and now he's retiring from magazine writing. But I'm thrilled to know my teacher will go on writing books. And when they come out, I will lock myself in a room with no paddle and be happy.

In 2008, Gary Smith published an anthology of some of his best work -- Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories.

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