Dread Ed Fed Hed Cred Editors aren't good for much, but give them a team nickname and they'll give you a tortured pun in a headline

April 16, 2000

Sportswriters are children. Children can't grow up to be
sportswriters because sportswriters aren't grown-ups. When
Mickey Mantle required a new liver, one of his doctors was
asked--during a formal press conference--if the donor was still
alive. The surgeon smiled paternally and said, "You're a
sportswriter, aren't you?"

Sports editors, on the other hand, are adults. Many own at least
one sport coat. The pockets are invariably plastic-lined, for
smuggling shrimp out of cocktail receptions, but the mere veneer
of civility gives editors an advantage over writers, few of whom
even own a necktie. Once, in a tony restaurant, political writer
Christopher Hitchens was made to wear the house's hideous red
loaner, which had the surface area (and approximate stain
patterns) of a lobster bib. Hitchens so liked the tie that he
wore it again four nights later--on CNN's Crossfire.

Compared to writers, then, editors are Gibraltars of
responsibility, and as such are entrusted with many
indispensable duties. The editor, for instance, translates a
writer's raw prose into clear, grammatical language. (That
language, alas, is Chichewa, the official tongue of Malawi.) The
conscientious editor is also the writer's advocate: a character
witness before judges and the jackals in accounting (who persist
in questioning the writer's $403 dinner bill with business
contacts "J. Cuervo" and "G. Livet"). In short, the sports
editor wears many hats, but all those hats have this in common:
the logo of a golf-club manufacturer.

Which isn't to imply that an editor spends all of his or her
time at cocktail receptions, denuding the shrimp trees and
hoarding the giveaway golf hats. On the contrary, editors write
the most prominent copy in print journalism. Editors write the
headlines.

The best news headlines have always employed puns so tortured as
to attract the attention of Amnesty International. (Separatists
fleeing Spain through a narrow mountain pass begot TOO MANY
BASQUES IN ONE EXIT.) This was not lost on sports editors, who
secretly met years ago to catalog the inviolable rules of
headline writing. Among the laws set down at the Geneva
(Typeface) Convention: Every time Ivan Lendl was eliminated from
a tennis tournament, English-language publications were
duty-bound to describe him as a BOUNCED CZECH, a CANCELED CZECH
or having just CZECHED OUT. Upbeat stories on the St. Louis or
Arizona or Louisville Cardinals had to be titled CARDINALS RULE
or IT'S IN THE CARDS. Downbeat stories: CARDINAL SINS or HOUSE
OF CARDS.

To this day, the SI swimsuit issue must contain at least one
story whose headline adheres to this beloved formula: "Dated
Exclamation + Exotic Location = Headline," as in WOWEE, IT'S
MAUI! or GOLLY, IT'S BALI! or BEGORRAH, IT'S BORA BORA!

Team nicknames--D-backs, T-wolves--are conceived with headline
writers in mind. In the '60s the Houston Colt .45s considered
changing their name to the Astronauts, but shortened that to
Astros, knowing that headline writers would do so anyway.
Peevishly, many headline writers further pruned the name to
'Stros. Team names must be reducible to a monosyllable (Tribe,
Yanks, Phils, Nugs). Indeed, TRIBE YANKS PHILS NUGS makes an
intriguingly lurid tabloid headline. You'd read that story.

Tabloids have their own secret language, in which tab is not
merely short for tabloid but also stands in for the verb to
call, so that a story on a Canadiens draft pick might be headed
TAB HABS' GRAB FAB. Tabloid readers will know precisely what
that means.

A great headline can force you to read a terrible story. It's a
clever carnival barker who draws you into the tent and then
abandons you, a sucker left looking for the exit.

(Exit here.)

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

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