We've Got Mail! Barraged by cards, letters and now E-mail, sportswriters must be masters of the quick counterpunch

October 10, 1999

The Nebraska Cornhuskers stink, Title IX is an outrage, and Joe
Paterno really ought to retire. Who, in his right mind, likes
the New York Yankees? Southerners talk funny, Canadians walk
funny, and Michael Jordan was--let's be honest--overrated. No
team from Texas deserves to make the cover of SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED, ever. (I will pause here, giving hockey fans time
to catch up.)

There. Having chummed the water with the foregoing phrases--none
of which I actually believe--SI is certain to attract new pen
pals, those men and women who are moved to write Letters to the
Editor, the most interesting, informative and egalitarian
element of any periodical.

I love them all, from the hateful to the grateful, but the
letters I am most touched to receive are a variation on this
theme: "I have been reading SI for two months/28 years/since the
first issue, which I have had laminated/Scotchgarded/preserved
in amber. Your story on John Daly's short game (In the
Drink)/Jeff Bagwell's diet (My Dinner with Andro) had me in
tears/stitches. Even as I write, my eyes/pants are still
moist...."

The obverse of this coin, of course, is the letter that ends,
"Cancel my subscription." This last resort--the journalistic
Dear John--is especially effective when it opens with "I have
never bought your publication, nor even read it, but I did catch
a glimpse of your cover (JUMPIN' JIMINY, IT'S BIMINI!) while
looking over the shoulder of a passenger on the number 14 bus to
Fort Linda...."

Nothing--not even love between a soldier at war and his high
school sweetheart on the home front--excites the epistolary
passions like sports. Which is why, with letter writing all but
extinct in society at large, SI will receive roughly 28,000
pieces of correspondence in 1999. This figure includes E-mail,
which allows a reader's every impulse to be transmitted to the
magazine in something resembling real time, so that much of my
mail now reads along the lines of "how can u diss the
sooners?!?!?" To which I regretfully respond, as John Updike
wrote of Ted Williams, "Gods do not answer letters."

Sportswriters, being somewhat the opposite of gods, usually do.
Indeed, many columnists, looking for a day off, enjoy, in print,
"opening up the old mailbag." Even those of us who respond via
regular mail have many ready-made ripostes at our disposal.
Among the excellent, time-tested replies to hate mail are, "Dear
Sir: Who read my story to you?" and "Dear Madam: I'm happy to
see the sanatorium now allows you the use of crayons...."
Tragically, mailing such responses is today considered
"unprofessional."

It's a good thing, then, that the vast majority of a
sportswriter's mail is heartfelt and heartwarming, posted by
"fans" looking to help out in one way or another. Concerned
readers frequently express fears that I or one of my colleagues
may show signs of a substance-abuse problem. ("You must have
been smoking crack when you wrote....") Others, eager to engage
in an existential exchange of letters, open with grand
philosophical questions. ("Who the hell do you think you are?")
Still other groupies offer, gratis, the results of their
unsolicited--yet comprehensive--research into my roots. ("I'll
bet you were conceived when....")

Confidential to R.B. of James Island, S.C.: I am told that
Dennis Rodman had nothing to do with it. But thanks for writing!

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)