It’s blasphemous, I know, but being a sportswriter is one of the hardest—if not the trickiest—jobs in journalism.
I’ll be thinking on Sunday about those 8,000 stories I wrote for The New York Times, and how I won’t have to come up with an early, running, and final piece for the Super Bowl—not to mention dash to the locker room past a crowd of more than 80,000 people, getting quotes from either glum (the losers) or happy (the winners) guys who could squash me with their fists.
The other folks at The New York Times used to call us the toy department. But what I discovered during my 40-something years writing sports was that, when I wrote about an event that wasn’t strictly sports, it was an easier assignment.
As surprising as it may seem to the non-sportswriter, we are not born with a distinct knowledge of the difference among the foil, epee, and sabre in fencing. Nor did we grow up with the arcane language of figure-skating, appreciating an axel jump or a camel spin—telling a good one from a bad one.
But beyond the expertise is this: You’ve got to write a darn-good story as well, incorporating adjectives and knowledge, avoiding the clichés that infect much of sports reporting, and do it all under a tight deadline.
In fact, in journalism, many of the most famous ledes were in sports stories, not war stories or book reviews, or writing about fires. I loved, for example, John Lardner’s profile of the middleweight boxing champion:
Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.
And what about Red Smith’s conveying the awe in his coverage of Bobby Thomson’s bottom-of-the-ninth home run that brought the New York Giants the pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers:
Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.