If, as Winston Churchill said, "It is a good thing for an
uneducated man to read books of quotations," then cretins
everywhere will benefit from The Quotable ESPN (Hyperion,
$9.95), which gathers for the first time in a single volume "the
most memorable stuff ever said" on the all-sports cable network.
This small treasure aspires to the reference staple Bartlett's
Familiar Quotations, and an examination of the two masterworks
reveals how favorably today's locker room orators compare with
the pithiest people of our past. For instance, Walt Whitman
wrote in November Boughs: "Here I sit in the early candle-light
of old age." Joe Montana said on Sunday Conversation: "I'm too
old for this s---."
In these two books--one fat, one thin--great men commiserate
across the centuries. Thomas Paine, on the American Revolution:
"We fight...to set a country free." Larry Holmes, on amateur
boxing: "I got tired of beating up people for free."
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
What literature really needs, it seems, is not a compendium of
memorable sports phrases but a collection of sports phrases we
would like to forget. Take "the zone." The NBA made it illegal,
and athletes and announcers ought to do the same. We would no
longer have to hear about hitters who are "in the zone,"
pitchers who are "up in the zone," umpires who are "squeezing
the zone," offenses that are "in the red zone," net surfers who
are in the "ESPN SportsZone" or--most of all--nitwits who are in
ESPNZone, a Baltimore sports bar that serves as the set of
Monday Night Football's pregame show.
Likewise, there ought to be a law--or at the very least, a
zoning ordinance--against use of the phrase "That's a good piece
of...." This would apply to "a good piece of hitting," "a good
piece of running" or "a good piece of" anything else, with the
lone exception of "a good piece of key lime pie" that Yankees
announcer Phil Rizzuto might have had the previous night in
Finally, when did golf become "the game of golf"? What did it
used to be--the Broadway musical Golf? And why do announcers and
PGA Tour members persist in calling everything "good for the
game of golf," especially a good "golf swing," which produces
good "golf shots," on a very challenging "golf course," which
features the toughest finishing hole "in all of golf."?
None of the foregoing are good pieces of speaking, nor are they
good for the game of golf.
But we digress, and time is oh so brief, as Shakespeare reminds
us in Macbeth ("Out, out brief candle!"), and Brett Hull reminds
us on Talk 2 ("Life's too short"). Henry David Thoreau gazed out
at Walden Pond and wrote, "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing
in." Deion Sanders looked into an ESPN camera and said, "I want
to be the first black dude to have a fishing show." Which man is
the greater wordsmith, history will have to decide.
Churchill became one of this century's great orators in part by
studying Bartlett's, and one can only hope that young athletes
learn as much from The Quotable ESPN, in which Allen Iverson
says, "I'd rather win than have good sportsmanship."
What lesson can such a quote teach them? The same lesson
Churchill learned after bingeing on books of quotations. "I
think 'No Comment' is a splendid expression," he said. "I am
using it again and again."