Posnanski drew on his years covering Greinke for the Star to argue that the one place the pitcher felt truly comfortable was the pitcher’s mound, and that crowds and the press didn’t bother him at all. It was a sensitive, smart, and well-reported piece; it was also structured around a conceit comparing Greinke to Chauncey, the idiot hero of Hal Ashby’s 1979 film Being There.
The effect Posnanski is after, and the one he gets if you’re not reading attentively, is to present Greinke as a very recognizable type, who exposes the grasping absurdity of everything around him just by staying true to his own narrow genius. The problem, though, is that Greinke isn’t some fictionalized idiot savant, but a talented player dealing with an illness he shares with millions of other Americans. Rather than fully work through the implications of that, Posnanski sentimentalizes Greinke, which is kinder than depicting him as a coward, but hardly more accurate.
Taking in a lot of Posnanski’s writing at once, you see this disjuncture between cause and effect recur so often that it comes to seem like a trick. The trick is predicated on the seemingly unconventional take (Zack Greinke is in fact better suited for the pressures of baseball than anyone else!), which makes it especially galling when that take is pure vanilla. One of the central mysteries of Joe Paterno’s life, for example, was why he kept coaching for at least a decade after he should have retired.
“His hearing went,” Posnanski writes in Paterno. “His mobility went. His energy went. But his mind stayed sharp, his memory too, and he kept on going even when his age had become a national punch line. He coached right up to the scandal that led to his firing and the cancer that led to his death.
“Why did he keep coaching? There are no shortage of theories. Ego? A loss of perspective? Or was it simply that he was human? ‘Joe refused to admit he was getting old,’ one friend said. ‘Isn’t that the most human thing of all?’”
One is tempted to answer, “Well, no, not really.” Only in fields that offer the illusion of youth or the reality of power—sports, entertainment, politics—is it normal to reach a Paternoesque denial of the reality of age. In the mentions of ego and loss of perspective Posnanski tacitly admits this, but when it comes to the part where he ought to be offering some actual insight, there is only something near a copout, one reminiscent of the infamous “secret” at the heart of Simmons’s The Book of Basketball. (“The secret of basketball,” Isiah Thomas tells him, “is that it’s not about basketball.”)
This sort of flaw mars Paterno, which brims with telling details that simply don’t align with its central argument that Paterno was a good man who, in an uncharacteristic lapse, failed to see what was right before him. Many reviewers rightly fixed on a story about the coach calling his daughter a thief and then storming out of a restaurant after she’d had the nerve to pick a cucumber off her sister’s plate. As with Greinke, Posnanski shies away from the more difficult conclusions of his own reporting and turns to wistful, easily understood truisms. Polemic can work this way. Narrative can’t.
Of course, Posnanski isn’t the only sportswriter who tends toward sentimentality and sometimes allows platitudes about the human spirit to stand in for hard explanations of difficult concepts. Between the speed of the news cycle and the demand that star columnists produce a volume of copy that often makes serious reporting or reflection impossible, taking those shortcuts is basically the only way to get the work done. This isn’t new—a hundred years ago, sportswriters worked under similar deadline pressures and were just as apt to express opinions on things they knew nothing about. What’s changed is the sheer amount of writing demanded in an age when there are no hard physical limits on word counts. The soup may sometimes be thin, but the chefs will make up for it in volume.
Techniques that work for day-to-day sports coverage, though, can fail miserably when used to handle a serious, real-world news story. There is a reason why the hardest news in sports—stories of concussions, doping scandals, the involvement of teams in the transnational workings of dirty capital—not only isn’t broken by star columnists, but is rarely seriously addressed by them. Those stories require quiet concentration, an ability to ignore the great raving noise machine and focus on small details and, most of all, time—the one thing a star never has. That’s a shame for anyone who cares about sports, and about journalism.