When I was younger, I was not very good at sports. Nor, for that matter, was I much of a sports fan.
This of course, was all to the loving frustration of my dad, who seemed to fancy himself at least a not unremarkable athlete and an expert fan.
When we played catch, I was afraid of the ball. My dad decided the best way to teach me not to flinch was to throw the ball as hard as possible at my head on the next toss after I made the mistake. That didn't work; instead of being afraid of the ball, I became terrified of playing catch with my dad. So he bought me a catcher's mask, though it proved difficult for him to throw the ball at me without laughing.
In the car, when he'd have a game on the radio, sometimes he'd give me a little test and ask me if I could listen and identify it -- not who was playing, but what sport was being played. I usually guessed without listening, and I usually guessed wrong.
He'd take me to a handful of Celtics games a year, most of which I don't remember. I have wonderful memories of meeting my dad at his office, of going to dinner before the game, of falling asleep happy on the car ride home. But I don't remember much of what happened on the court; in season-ticket seats so high up in the balcony loge you could actually touch the old Garden's ceiling, I spent most of my time daydreaming.
This was all to the chagrin of my dad, who would keep asking me if I wanted to play catch, and who would often turn to me during Celtics games and say, "Did you see that?" To which I would always reply yes, and hope he did not ask me more about the play. I wanted to like sports for his sake, I really did, but I just wasn't that interested.
So then, in the summer after fourth grade, we took a family trip to the Southwest. Saw the Grand Canyon, the Four Corners, the whole deal. Before the trip, my dad went with me to the bookstore and picked out something for me to read on the plane and beyond. It was big and thick and about the history of baseball; it was soft cover; and I don't remember the title. But I do remember that I couldn't put it down.
I guess you could say I was studying it, because with my dad, I never could be sure there wasn't going to be a test to follow: tell me where the A's played before Oakland, or no dessert tonight. But there was no test; I pored over the book because I was taken by the stories of the game's history.
Ted Williams getting six hits in that last doubleheader to finish at .406 in '41. Ty Cobb sharpening his spikes on the dugout steps. Eddie Gaedel, the Browns midget. Pete Gray, the one-armed ballplayer. Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse.
I filed away the anecdotes. I got inside the photographs. I tried to memorize the lists of all-time statistical leaders in the appendix. Halfway through the trip, the book gave out on me; the binding broke, and the cover became nothing more than a folder for flyaway pages.
One evening, my dad and I had the TV on in the hotel, and a now-familiar black-and-white photo flickered on screen, a baseball player, rugged-looking, dimpled and in pinstriped flannel. I had seen this player's photo in the book. My dad asked me who it was.
"Um," I said, looking up at him. "Lou Gehrig?"
I'm fairly certain that something like a tear came to my dad's eye at that moment, and I know exactly what my dad, who learned to read at the age of four from baseball cards, said next: "We'll make a sports fan out of you, yet." And he gave me a hug.
And he was right. I did become a sports fan. But this was not a progression so much as an immediate transformation, the result of a vacation, a book, a moment shared. Watching games followed: That year, I honed in on the court when I was at the Garden, and when I wasn't, I listened to the games on the radio in my room.
But I was a sports fan first because I enjoyed reading the stories about sports. That hasn't changed for me. As much as I enjoy watching sports, I tend not to schedule my life around the important ones. Yet, I've found a comfortable home in the sports section, and that's where I'll be, at least for awhile, I hope.
Maybe that's why I feel like a bit of a phony sometimes as a sports writer. I have a non-technical appreciation of sports, the perspective of a guy who gets great pleasure from the craft of writing and who really is a sports fan, but who nonetheless can't identify a box-and-one and doesn't dream about nickel packages. And I wouldn't be able to fake my way through a fantasy league draft.
That may be an oversimplification. I do know plenty about sports; I'm just most interested in sports history and sports stories. I'm a bit of a pack rat, and I've accumulated piles of newspapers not merely to commemorate important events, but because they're examples of great sports writing.
I save them for a reason: They're stories that I've read that are so good they send shivers down your spine, so good that if you don't immediately run and share them with someone else, you feel selfish.
So that's my relationship with sports writing. I hope someday I'll write a couple stories that people will want to save, or better yet, run immediately to share them with a friend. And one other thing, for the record: I love my dad, and, once in a while, I still flinch when he throws the ball at my head.Comments powered by Disqus
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