Twenty years ago, we left Steve Rushin in Parking Area P5-West-Blue-Nevada-D-6 in the 13,000-car garage in the Mall of America, a fin de si√®cle colossus so sprawling that its grounds formerly housed not only one professional stadium (Metropolitan Stadium, home to the Twins and the Vikings) but also a second (Met Center, home of the NHL's North Stars). Rushin, who had peddled hot dogs at Met Stadium as a teenager, trod untold miles that 1994 day, past logo-festooned store windows, past The Athlete's Foot and Athletic X-Press, past Kids Foot Locker and Lady Foot Locker and World Foot Locker, past a sports bar wall of 55 televisions drawing life from massive NASA-like satellite dishes that heralded a Jetsons-like future. The Mall would serve as both coda and metaphor for another sprawling space, Rushin's 22,000-word meditation on the evolution of sports and society in the four decades since the birth of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. The piece, the second longest in the franchise's history, ran under the title, How We Got Here.
But a mall, no matter how large, is finite, writ small by the changes that were taking place even as Rushin was putting the finishing touches on his opus. On July 5, 1994, in the same week that Rushin delivered his story to SI's editors, a 30-year-old entrepreneur incorporated the company Cadabra. A year later Jeff Bezos, believing Cadabra sounded too much like cadaver, changed the name to Amazon and began selling books out of his Bellevue, Wash., garage. Now, of course, acquiring all those logo-festooned sneakers and shirts and shorts that had short-circuited Rushin's senses in the Mall of America no longer takes a trip to the mall, but rather a click or two on a digital device. Early this year, as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED approached its 60th anniversary, assistant managing editor Steve Cannella asked Rushin a perfectly reasonable question: How did we get here?
It was also a friendly way of asking the writer if he might undertake a project that covered the four decades he had documented in 1994 plus the most recent two, examining themes of soaring revenues and unapologetic commercialism, of television and new technologies that have created an infinite menu of choices for the sports fan. Rushin's story, which begins on page 56, anchors our latest anniversary celebration, planned and edited for the magazine and SI.com by Cannella, assistant managing editor Hank Hersch and senior editor for special projects Lindsay Applebaum.
Rushin has never sought obvious paths in his search for answers, and his peerless curiosity took him not to such obvious symbols of the Information Age as LeBron James or Billy Beane or MLB Advanced Media, or even Stephen A. Smith, but rather Vin Scully. The 86-year-old broadcaster, Rushin reasoned, was the perfect symbol of the last six decades. "I thought of Vin first because he's been an eloquent witness to the last 60 years," Rushin says. "And while he's calling the same Dodger games in 2014 that he was calling in 1954, his voice is delivered in very different ways—by WMGM radio and over-the-air TV in Brooklyn, but also by smartphone, tablet and a dedicated cable channel in Los Angeles too. When he moved with the Dodgers from Brooklyn to L.A., sports fulfilled its Manifest Destiny. So Vin embodies changes on the field, changes in technology, changes in the economics of sports. And all of that in a guy who may be the best storyteller in the history of broadcasting."
Rushin's 40th-anniversary piece viewed the evolution of sports in a more linear fashion, showing how far we had come, for better and worse: 1994 was not 1954. You might think that 2014 had rendered 1994—and certainly 1954—primitive. In numerous ways it has, of course, but Rushin saw more nuanced changes. The sports world in 2014 is, as he describes Dodger Stadium, "at once state of the art and suspended in time."
"The story is full of these circles," Rushin says. "Sports' move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and back to Brooklyn, technology's move from handheld device to handheld device, and it all kind of culminates in the smartphone in the palm of our hand. No wonder Apple's headquarters are at 1 Infinite Loop. The story of the last 60 years is really one infinite loop."
As SI approached its 60th anniversary, assistant managing editor Cannella asked Rushin a perfectly reasonable question: How did we get here?