I do go back a ways. In 1965, playing softball in the Army, I hit a home run off Rollie Stichweh. Two years before that, Stichweh, at quarterback for West Point, had appeared in the very first TV instant replay. He ran for a touchdown and then, apparently, did it identically again. The CBS switchboard lit up. Viewers were mystified. What happened? He scored twice? How can such a thing be?
Several years later, when I was a staff writer for SI, it was state of the art to lug around a manual typewriter. Metal keys and an inky ribbon. I typed my fingers down to the elbows.
Even so, I was startled to read recently, in a post about Serena Williams at Tennis.com: "Another thing I've learned is that it can be hard to get away from what the old SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer Roy Blount Jr. termed 'respectful racism.'"
The old? Why not just go ahead and make it the late? Or of sainted memory? As it happens, I have recently returned to the SI masthead, as a senior contributor, so I'm no longer even the former. If I hadn't left the SI staff to freelance in 1975, by now I might be the venerable. Respectful ageism, but at least a brand.
July 9, 2012
Just thinking careerwise, though, here is where I really went wrong.
Back in the early '80s, I took part in a TV pilot. I was host of a sports talk show to be called Sportsnight. Tony Kornheiser was my Ed McMahon. In the monologue, I demonstrated how to talk sports while chewing and spitting tobacco. I signed off by smashing an enormous plaster golf ball (we had only one, had to get it right) with a three wood. And who was our famous guest? None other than Howard Cosell. I pressed him on the matter of his conversational style. "Yes," he said grandly, "I have become a caricature of myself." And that, the look on his face seemed to say, is the American dream.
Well, isn't it? To have become so iconic as to serve also, with every stroke, as your own iconoclast? Shamelessness, undoubtedly, is next to rockgodliness. My follow-up to Cosell was something to the effect of, "Hmm." Why didn't I pump him for advice? I should have sold my soul to make that talk show work. Who are you today if you're not a TV personality? By now, after 30 years of hosting Sportsnight, I could be Charles Barkley and Willow Bay (in her prime, I mean) rolled into one.
"Tonight we have as our guest the old Knick and also the old senator Bill Bradley, to talk about his brand-new book, We Can All Do Better. So, Bill, that's got to be the wiggiest title since Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Come to you in a dream? Why didn't you just call it Oh, Come On, Everyone?"
People would beg to be on that show. "So, Rooney Mara, how much of your righteous viciousness toward men as the Dragon Tattoo girl do you owe to all those times you must have been thrown out of Giants and Steelers locker rooms as a pesky little moppet?" Then we have Eli Manning and Troy Polamalu pop up in full uniform—not just actors playing them, because, like I say, we can get anybody—and she beats the crap out of them. It's a setup. Or is it? Either way, killer TV.
By now, maybe, I would have had my retirement special, with Serena herself sitting on my desk singing The Way We Were. But I would be immortal on YouTube, and I would own 17 cars, or at least a new one, and for Mardi Gras I could masquerade as myself and everybody would immediately get it.
But deep down inside, I can be such a pain. I was relieved when that show didn't go anywhere. On TV you have to look like you know what you're overdoing, while you're overdoing it. I'm a writer. I don't even like Skype.
So, here I am. The old. The dead is what I should be. Bobby Valentine, the Red Sox' manager, was asked recently whether, as a high school football star, he'd ever played with a concussion. "I went into the wrong huddle and stuff like that," he said. "I was concussed. I kind of liked it. I didn't know you weren't supposed to like those things. It was a different world."
So was being a sportswriter. In my day, writing a story with a bad hangover relieved by a medicinal beer or two, with an hour of sleep, while being nagged by the suspicion that you had left your rental car running outside that apartment with no furniture in it except for that fluffy blue rug where—where? How about whom? I didn't know you weren't supposed to like working like that. It made it seem more athletic.
We prided ourselves on performing, like Babe Ruth, in spite of performance-inhibiting drugs. My late friend Pete Axthelm, of SI and later Newsweek, used to refer to himself with relish as "a drunk and a degenerate gambler." He did die of drink, at 47, but I don't know that the gambling got away from him, though I recall him saying, in a locker room awash in champagne, "I hate being around a team that didn't cover the spread and thinks it won."
Way late one night we escorted a stripper (named Misty, I think) back from an Augusta, Ga., bar to the lovely home that SI was renting for the Masters. Rather than remove any clothes, she kept insisting that we get her onto the hallowed grounds of Augusta National, so she could meet a better class of people. She did show us the pistol she kept in her handbag. (Who knew strippers had handbags?) Pete borrowed it and fired it into the air out in the front yard along toward dawn. Damn. Forty-seven.
But I don't dwell on the past. I dwell on what's wrong with the present. For instance, that new statistic in certain box scores, BFP. For "batters faced by pitcher." Why do you need the P? Who else faces batters? The centerfielder? That may seem a small thing, but on your own TV show you could ride it hard:
"So, Curt Schilling, you're a hard-core get-government-out-of-business guy whose bankrupt video-game company owes the state of Rhode Island 75 million bucks. What's your take on this BFP thing?"
As it happens, I have already set down many of my SI reminiscences. Driving all night with Dick Allen from Chicago to Allentown, Pa., under the influence of hashish? It's in my memoir, Be Sweet. Writing an as-told-to story with Wilt Chamberlain in his aerie decorated with wolf muzzles? See "Wilt, a Tall Tale" in my book Alphabet Juice. I recently wrote, somewhere, about the closest I ever came to being mistaken for a sports immortal. That would be when I called Billy Martin to set up an interview, and as soon as he heard my voice he said, "Mick? Mick? Is it the old Mick?" When I revealed, reluctantly, that I was not Mickey Mantle, Billy and I were both so bummed that I'm surprised I got enough time with him to write a cover story without getting beat up.
Years later I saw Billy in a bar, but I didn't go over and offer to buy him a drink. He once slugged a marshmallow salesman in a bar. If you'll do that, knowing full well how it will play in the news, there's no telling what you'll do to somebody who let you down by not being the old Mick. Here's how the old Twins pitcher Dave Boswell explained why Martin, his manager at the time, got the better of him when they brawled in 1969:
"There were people all over me. I threw one guy into a trash can. Billy grabbed my chain and pulled my head into the wall and knocked me out. I had fifty-some stitches in my head and there were bald patches all over. My crucifix got stuck in my mouth, between my lips and teeth, and it took them hours in surgery to get it out. Billy's sneaky as hell."
This show can book anybody, living or dead. Tonight, on remote, a big surprise. "Billy Martin, where are you now?"
"I can't believe I'm on Sportsnight! I thought for a minute you were just Mickey Mantle. Well, I'm in kind of a bad place right now. This one devil keeps grabbing my crucifix...."
Once when I was hanging with Reggie Jackson for a story, a golf p.r. guy punched me in the eye. I grabbed the p.r. guy's leg, thinking I could tump him over or something, but he was lanky and I was only able to send him hopping backward across the room. To be fair, I wasn't accredited for his tournament. And that story was for Rolling Stone, after I started freelancing so I could write about Gilda Radner, Duck Soup and the Ku Klux Klan. Reggie's theory was that the p.r. guy was mad at him, for being bigger than the tournament, and took it out on me. If Reggie had been riding with the Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he was shot, plunging Europe into World War I, Reggie would have assumed that he was the assassin's intended target.
That's one reason Reggie was so great to cover. The first story I did on him, for SI, began with Reggie naked, swinging his 37-ounce bat, whupp, whupp, and sharing with me his appreciation of salient parts of his body. He wasn't sure he wanted to be photographed even just bare-chested, though, "because my peers might not like it," he said. "And I am one of my peers." The story ended with Reggie asking what other players were saying about him. I told him they kept summing him up with, "That's just Reggie being Reggie."
"Yeah," he said, looking proud but a little troubled. "I wonder what they mean by that?"
Kornheiser defects to do the thing with Michael Wilbon. "O.K., who needs him. Who even needs a guest—hey, LeBron, come back tomorrow night. I'm of a mood to talk about my youth. Tonight on Sportsnight, it's just your old Sportsnightster being your old Sportsnightster."
In the summer of 1960, a crusty Scottish veterinarian was showing me around a bluegrass farm in Lexington, Ky. He moved a thoroughbred mare's tail aside and told me to hold it there. He put on a long rubber glove, inserted his arm elbow-deep into the mare's rump and pulled out a lot of green poop that was blocking his view. Then he inserted a speculum into the mare's other back door, peered inside, nodded and urged me to take a look. "You'll need a mind's-eye view of that," he said.
I looked only long enough to be polite. Polite toward the vet and, insofar as possible, toward the mare. "I'm not going to be a veterinarian," I explained.
"Your first dilated cervix, and you lose the stomach for this work?"
"No," I said. "I'm a prospective sportswriter."
More precisely, I was on a scholarship for prospective sportswriters. The scholarship, at Vanderbilt, was a memorial to Grantland Rice, whom you could have reasonably called "the old sportswriter" even then, because he had passed away. Rice had been a great friend of the sport of kings, so the Thoroughbred Racing Associations were funding the scholarship, which included summer internships related to horse racing. It was a wonderful deal, but to be a sportswriter, as such, was not my dream. I wanted to write about everything, and I wanted to feel about what I wrote the way Reggie told me, years later, he felt when he connected just right: "When you take a pitch and line it somewhere, it's like you've thought of something and put it with perfect clarity." I'm still working on that.
In the summer of 1968, when SI offered me a job as a staff writer, I was 26. Because I could type good sentences, I had already managed to get by as a misfit grad student, a misfit Army officer, a misfit newspaper reporter and a misfit husband. I figured I could pull off being a misfit sportswriter. And SI was the big time: a base in New York City and travel everywhere. Back then we were required, I was told, to fly first class. My starting salary was $11,500, a $4,000 increase over what I'd been making as an editorial writer and general columnist at The Atlanta Journal, and the equivalent of $76,000 today. We got a three-room apartment in Greenwich Village for $335 a month.
Many people informed me at that time that I had the greatest job on earth. However, I have always had trouble finding my way around in complicated buildings. Locating press boxes and locker room doors, not to mention getting down on the field in one stadium after another, was not, for me, a snap. And I had not been in a locker room since high school baseball. I was a third baseman, but my strong suit was pitching batting practice. I did have that going for me. Interviewing ballplayers is comparable to pitching batting practice—giving them something to hit—only you're also in a game with them, ready to catch them off base. And who was I to get into a tangle like that with my hero Willie Mays, sitting there wearing a towel and taking an immediate dislike to me.
In 1968 my working garb was an inexpensive sport coat, white shirt and tie. And there I was in a roomful of people who were either garishly got up, naked or in major league uniforms, and I didn't know any of them, except by reputation, and they all knew each other pretty well, and none of them knew me by reputation, because I didn't have one, and my job was to coax them into quotable reflections upon themselves and each other. I would say that I felt like a church lady trying to solicit contributions in a harem, except that a church lady, presumably, would not have had the issue of trying not to come across as making too much of an effort not to seem unmanly. I felt uncool even in comparison with the newspaper guys covering the teams regularly. "There's nothing sadder than an old baseball writer," Ring Lardner is supposed to have said, but I admired how the old guys kept cheap cigars going while banging away at their typewriters with two fingers. Later on I was advising a magazine writer who was writing about how the Super Bowl was covered. She turned up her nose at the general run of sportswriters. "They're just scruffy old guys," she said.
"I like scruffy old guys," I said. And now that I am one, they're out of style.
Bill Leggett, SI's main baseball writer when I was hired, wore leisure suits and lacked sparkle as a writer, but he knew the baseball beat, and he said memorable things around the office. When a new bulletin board went up in the corridor, several writers were standing around speculating on what sort of corporate intrusion this portended. Leggett walked by and said, "Pin a mitten on it." When I was just getting started covering baseball, Leggett made this observation: "Every time somebody hits a home run and I ask him what pitch he hit, he always says, 'A c--k-high fastball.'" I stored that nugget away.
Shortly thereafter, in the San Francisco Giants' dressing room, postgame, I stood before Willie McCovey—a man whom Bob Gibson described as the scariest hitter in baseball. McCovey was attired in an athletic supporter. He had hit a long home run, and he looked nearly as long himself. Several of us scribes surrounded his locker. Someone complimented him on his titanic blast.
My cue. "Was it a c--k-high fastball?" I crisply inquired, with a touch of knowing amusement. McCovey did not answer me in words. Nor did he chuckle. He—well, it wasn't the first time in my life that I had been regarded with disdain. But never with such enormous disdain, shading over into downright repugnance. I felt shoetop high, and yet very visible among my assembled old-guy peers. The hardest part was trying to think of something to pretend to be writing down in my reporter's notebook.
"Special treat for you old Giants fans tonight. Put your hands together for the old Giant Willie McCovey! Great to have you on the show, Stretch."
"Great to be here, Nightster."
"Yes, you say that now, Willie, but back in 1968—dammit, Willie, couldn't you have stretched just a little bit and said, 'They're scared to get it up that high' or something, I don't know, just anything not to leave me dangling...."
"Yeah, man, I was wrong. It's been bothering me all these years, and I'm glad to have this chance—"
"So, if an RBI is a ribby, is a BFP a biffpy?"
In the early '70s I began to get acclimated, thanks to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bob Veale yelling that he was going to reach down somebody's throat and pull out his liver. Manny Sanguillen limping around doing his impression of Roberto Clemente. Clemente self-diagnosing his stomach pain as bad blood that had traveled there from an injury in his wrist. Richie Hebner telling of his off-season job as a grave-digger: "One woman, they forgot to take off her wooden leg, and we had thrown several shovels of dirt on her already when somebody came up and said we have to get her back out so they could get her leg." The Pirates were forever hurling ethnic slurs at one another and lifting one another off the ground. Steve Blass tied his necktie so that it was about half the normal length and informed a flight attendant, "I'm the one in the short tie." And they seemed not to mind my being around, even after I reported on a group entertainment of theirs that relied upon the element of surprise.
"I can pick up three men," Tony Bartirome would say.
"Naw, you got a bad back," someone would respond.
"I mean it. I'll bet a hundred dollars."
Finally, after a lot of arguing and money-waving back and forth, Bartirome would get a new team member to lie on the floor, and then he would direct two heavy guys, say Willie Stargell and Dock Ellis, to lock their arms and legs around the new teammate's. Dave Giusti would get down to judge whether all three would in fact clear the floor at once.
"All right," Bartirome would say. "When I say strain, you strain. Strain."
Stargell, Ellis and the pigeon would brace themselves.
And with that, Bartirome would unzip the immobilized pigeon's trousers, and Pirates would spring forward to fill them with shaving cream and carbonated beverages. I put that trick into a couple of movie scripts that didn't get made.
I wasn't a betting man myself. It seemed unwise to bet on people because I liked them, and I didn't want to pull for people I didn't like just because I had money on them. At a racetrack, though, I would lose a few bucks. I figured I owed it to the Thoroughbred Racing Associations. Once when I was hanging with the Pirates' Dave Parker for SI, we went to a track in Florida, where we ran into Pete Rose and his then wife, Karolyn. By that time I had been around long enough to know people, including Rose. It wasn't an interview type of situation, we were all just sitting around chewing the fat. Karolyn was the one you'd want on your talk show. When she first caught Pete's eye, she said, she was leaning against the rail at that very track, with one leg up. "I had on a light-blue dress. They were wearing them long then. I was wearing them short."
"So, Karolyn, I understand you always 'win' at working a jigsaw puzzle."
"That's right, old Nightster. I lean over the table and slip one piece up under one of my bosoms, and when there's just the one space left, I lean back and it's mine!"
By 1975 I had long, bushy hair, no tie and no more marriage. It was a good time to be a cowboy in Gotham. If I had no place to sleep late at night, I could go to the Park Avenue penthouse of my colleague Dan Jenkins and his wife, June, whose door was never locked, and find a vacant bedroom. One night I autographed, in the authors' names, every book in their daughter Sally's room, with personal inscriptions. Actually I signed The Scarlet Letter "Harthorne Wingo," remember him?
When I would ooze on by the SI workplace, someone would always be playing golf in the hallways, smoking dope in the ventilator shaft or running around in a gorilla suit. One day I was introducing Suzy Adams, a new reporter, to some of her co-workers. Gil Rogin, the editor whose office bristled with quotations from Wittgenstein the size of fortune-cookie messages, which he had meticulously affixed to the walls with straight pins, was wearing a big cast on his foot. Suzy commiserated. "Fruitless to rail against it," said Rogin.
Bud Shrake, who golfed with Willie Nelson, greeted Suzy amiably: "I'm just running out for a bottle of mung oil. Can I get you some?"
I fit in. My own cubicle overflowed with mementos. Funny how mementos fade, but I know there was a "MOONSHINE KILLS" bumper sticker and a stuffed raven I had bought in Iceland during the chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. SI covered things like that back then. I could probably have done a story about raven stuffing in Iceland if I had come up with a colorful enough raven stuffer, which I probably could have done.
Just the other day I got a call from Clifford La Fontaine, a celebrated exhibit designer whom I knew because he was married to the now late SI writer and editor Barbara La Fontaine. He said, "We need a raven. We can't find a raven anywhere." I told him I had passed mine on to reporter Demmie Stathoplos when I left SI. He called Demmie, and I am proud to say that my raven is now the official raven of the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage in the Bronx, where the author of The Raven once lived. If I'd known then that my raven would go on to such literary heights, I might have been content to remain in what had in fact begun to seem like the greatest job in the world.
But, thanks to SI, I had tasted book writing. A book is something you can write the way you want to, if you can. Which is all I've ever asked for—that, and a decent amount of money. In 1973, managing editor Andre Laguerre, who had been an aide to Charles de Gaulle and a friend of Albert Camus, called me to his office after a typically bibulous lunch and suggested that I spend a season hanging out with a pro football team to write a book. Partly because of the Pirates, I picked the Steelers.
That book, Three Bricks Shy of a Load, is the only one of my 23 that is mentioned in the Harvard University Press's A New Literary History of America. Maybe I peaked at 33. But when I saw Larry Bird make a completely unexpected but perfect pass on the run, I didn't want to write about that, I wanted to write like that. And I didn't think I could do it in the relative stability of one magazine, however nuts its personnel. I quit SI on good terms and went on to do more work for the magazine on a freelance basis, as I am doing now, but I haven't had a job since. I've made a good living, and I've hit some licks, but I'm still tinkering with my swing.
"Anything goes on this show, folks. Tonight we're considering the difference between a self-caricature and a pain.
"A self-caricature and a pain are asked the same question: Would you say your role as a closer is like that of a federal marshal, who rides into a town full of corruption and bullies and cleans the town up and then rides off into the sunset?"
"Pain: 'That's not what federal marshals did.'"
I could never have sustained a famous TV show, since this is a principle I live by: If you want to keep on thinking of something you're doing as a vivid experience, don't allow it to be videotaped. Today I watched a video that caused me to abandon a freelance assignment from SI in 1992. I was going to write about finding my batting stroke. In time I would be able to describe my readiness at the plate almost poetically, as Curtis Granderson of the Yankees did this spring: "You got to be balanced, almost to the point where you stop moving, but you are ready to continue to move."
I had been trying to connect with my natural stroke since I was eight or nine. In my side yard, by myself, in Decatur, Ga., I could pretend to be a great hitter. When I played there with other kids, they tended to interfere with my sense of destiny. One summer, there was a girl named Lura. Cross-eyed and inscrutable, considerably bigger than I or any of my playmates, Lura would wander up out of rightfield, which was a patch of woods, and she would go over to the batter and take hold of the big end of his bat. Then she would just stand there. You couldn't get the bat away from her, because she was too strong. You couldn't let go of the bat and pick up another one, because she would take the bat you'd turned loose and go off back into the woods with it. You had to just stand there and argue with her. And Lura was not much of a talker. I would find myself thinking, How in the world can I have allowed my game to come to this?
Even when I was alone, pitching to myself, the field constricted my stroke. Rightfield, as I say, was woods, and leftfield was our house. If you could clear the corner of the house, you were into left center, but if you didn't clear it, you might break a window, so you concentrated on dead center. Across the back edge of the yard was a rusting sheet-metal fence, about two feet high. To clear it you not only had to be a slugger, you also had to be a marksman—between you and the fence stood a fig tree, several pin oaks and dogwoods, a swing set, a disused chicken house and frequently a big wash that my mother had hung out on the line.
If you did hit one over the fence, your emotions were mixed, because that meant you might have to spend from then until dark, or suppertime, poking around in a tangle of vines, dead trees and wet black leaves looking for the ball, which was either the color of the leaves from being taped up or else a scruffy greenish-brown that blended with everything. There was a good chance you would find not that ball but one or two others that had mildewed. Nothing can undercut your sense of being a great hitter like the sight, the smell and the feel in your hand (or rather between your thumb and forefinger) of a baseball that has mildewed.
To begin to come into my rightful swing at last, I went to the batting school of Amos Otis, the old Kansas City Royal, in Los Angeles. My son Kirven was living there then, so we both took videoed instruction. On the tape Kirven looks like an athlete and improves with Otis's pointers. Me, I'm making contact, but I look too much like an old, stiff guy fighting off rats with a stick.
"You've got a lot of bad habits, Roy," Otis tells me. "You've been having them for years. You can't correct them in two seconds." And he walks away.
I was 50 then. I'm 70 now. Age is only a number, I know, but I'm getting number every day—no, I take that back, I'd like to get more numb. Seventy is like being an athlete in one way: the aches and pains. The other day a nurse was about to inoculate me against shingles. "This will hurt," she said. Then a pinprick. I had to tell that young person, "I hurt worse than that all over, all the time."
In a New Yorker cartoon, an old guy is announcing to his wife, "I've decided to start groaning every time I have to move my body a little bit." But that's just a joke. In fact, I'm looking for what pitchers try to cultivate in their stuff: late movement.
Friends younger than I am have retired. I might be tempted, if I had anything to retire from. But I wouldn't stop feeling for the feeling of certain line drives I have seen people hit. If you hit it right, they say, it doesn't sting.
What does the old Nightster do now, in retirement? Calls up old sportswriters, who can't afford to quit working. Tries to get them to quote him. "I'm talking to Yogi the other day, and he comes up with a new Yogi-ism. He asks me, 'Who is that new pitcher they got in Texas?'
"'Yu Darvish?' I say.
"'Naw,' says Yogi. 'You know me, I'm Italian, from St. Louis.'"
The old sportswriter is not going to use that. Call him a pain, if you will. But the sportswriter can tell the Nightster made that up.
The Nightster can't let it go. "Says Yogi, 'I don't even know where Darvia is.'"
It's sad. Me, I don't need the spotlight. I live in the country with my wife and our cat. I plug away at another book, I write a column for Garden and Gun, about compost or Adam and Eve or something, and from time to time I'm on the radio—Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me—where I once made then senator Barack Obama chuckle at an off-color remark about Wade Boggs.
For excitement I chase Jimmy, the cat, around the house. If we both time it just right, Jimmy goes running into the living room through one door and I through the other, and Jimmy comes flying up over the back of an easy chair—with his vertical leap, if he were 6'4" he could spot up on top of the glass—and whump, hits me right in the numbers. And I wrap him up, as they say in coaching clinics, so it's sort of like a tackle, but it's also like catching a pass, and a little bit like Yogi jumping into Don Larsen's arms after the World Series perfect game.
Then Jimmy goes wairrrr and wiggles away. But solid contact has been made, on the fly, and that is the essence of—
"Wait a minute. That's what you do now? For excitement? Chest-bump a cat?"
WRITING A STORY WITH A BAD HANGOVER RELIEVED BY A MEDICINAL BEER OR TWO? I DIDN'T KNOW YOU WEREN'T SUPPOSED TO LIKE WORKING LIKE THAT.
I ADMIRED THE WAY THE OLD BASEBALL WRITERS KEPT CHEAP CIGARS GOING WHILE BANGING AWAY AT THEIR TYPEWRITERS WITH TWO FINGERS.
WHEN I SAW LARRY BIRD MAKE AN UNEXPECTED BUT PERFECT PASS ON THE RUN, I DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE ABOUT THAT, I WANTED TO WRITE LIKE THAT.