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.
The failure of one of America’s finest sportswriters to do anything really meaningful with unique access to the main players in the biggest sports story of his generation would ideally prompt changes. Editors might grant their better stylists more time to do careful work. Columnists might write less often but more thoroughly, trusting their readers to come up with their own opinions on the latest in the infinite series of vital debates over postseason awards and Halls of Fame. The public might even become more demanding.
While any of that might yet happen, I’d doubt it. Posnanski’s book was published on August 21. Within a few days he ran a 5,000-word piece on a baseball statistic, two 2,000-word pieces on baseball’s Hall of Fame, and another on the heartwarming story of how his iPad was lost (“it was one of those moments—and there are many throughout childhood, into college, into early adulthood, into mid-life, on and on—when the world becomes just a little bit darker place”) and then returned to him. His new website Sports on Earth, a rival to Simmons’s Grantland, also went live. Over the next few weeks its pages filled with content. A lot of it was good. Most of the writers sounded a little bit like Posnanski.