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Mariotti: Why I Still Love Sportswriting

The editor-in-chief of this fine sports site is floating column ideas.

He mentions something about Brian Urlacher being “the best Bear since Butkus,” which suggests Jonathan Eig either is overworked, listening to too many delirious Jeff Joniak highlights, or admitting that he vanished from Earth on a lunar reconnaissance mission between 1975 and 1987.

Seems I must remind him about a running back from that era named Walter Payton, Sweetness for short, who not only is the best Chicago Bear ever but the greatest pound-for-pound specimen in the history of our savage national obsession known as professional football. ”I thought I said best Bears LINEBACKER,” Mr. Eig protests. But then, he shouldn’t go there, either, not unless he wants to dis the man with the incredible shifting laser eyeballs, the Samurai marauder captured indelibly by NFL Films when he preached this to the bewildered Packers one Sunday: “We’re gonna be here all day, baby! I like this kind of party, baby!” Now we’re going to assert that Brian Urlacher has authored a better linebacking career than Mike Singletary?

Really?

What else, boss?

“How about a personal essay on why you like sports writing?” Mr. Eig offers. “Why sports? Why still?”

Why sports? Why still? This one, I like. Why continue to embrace a craft that literally almost killed me, a profession currently diluted by so many unskilled bloggers and corporate suckups that it has lost much of its soul?

My answer remains the same as it has for three decades: Because I still love sports, and because I still love to write. Sports + writing = sportswriter. And the fond memories still dance like nude women at Burning Man, whether it’s Michael Jordan’s wrist-pose final shot in Utah, or Michael Jordan’s flurry of threes in the Portland series, or Michael Jordan’s… er, Kirk Gibson’s gimp-limp home run at Dodger Stadium, or Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals in China, or Ben Johnson’s too-good-to-be-true sprint that turned on the sewer pipes for sport’s Steroids Era, or Tiger Woods winning a U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on one leg, or Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at 46, or Lance Armstrong winning dirty in Paris, or the White Sox winning the only Chicago World Series trophy most of us ever will see, or the freaky goal that returned the Stanley Cup to Madison Street, or Super Bowl XX and the most dominant single-season team (sorry, Don Shula) in NFL history, or Michael Jordan’s six titles in six tries, or Michael Jordan’s…

I am blessed to have seen so much. How much do I love sports writing? I have a way of going through hell on the job and coming back for more. I had a heart attack during a bowl-game assignment, ending up drugged in a New Orleans hospital and watching groggily on closed-circuit TV while a stent was threaded through my leg and plugged into an artery. I’ve had my life threatened so often by cowardly cyber assassins, many from the South Side, that I’ve decided to have my ashes scattered at U.S. Cellular Field. I had Jordan angrily tell me that he kept my columns on his refrigerator door for motivation.

Mr. Eig says it sounds like I’m “bragging” about all this. Oh, yeah, the pride is just oozing here. After all the madness, all the liars and loons, why would I want to continue writing about sports? Wouldn’t I rather be a factory worker in China? An elephant sperm collector? Not a chance.

There’s no better place on the literary landscape that regularly strikes every nerve on the emotional spectrum, where the best commentators can profile a wonderful moment as easily as they rage over the latest scandal, where the essence of it all—you’re-wrong-and-I’m-right debate—remains a vital American exercise that turns ESPN rabble-rousers Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith into polarizing national figures.

Being in the sports media, which included eight years on ESPN TV and 17 at the Sun-Times and a zillion radio shows, has made me a comfortable living for more than a quarter-century. It has paid for my daughters’ college education, allowed me to globetrot on the job like Anthony Bourdain, and given me entree to exceptional people and opportunities. But the reason I still like sports writing has nothing to do with money or perks. The ongoing dramas of organized competition reflect life in its rawest form—meaning nothing, really, to the ultimate condition of the world yet evoking mass reaction that keeps emotional juices flowing like no other genre. What would you want me to write about, Obama and Romney? My subjective objectivity would be shot down as biased by rotten political media types with agendas. Music? Yeah, I want to try explaining the Katy Perry phenomenon. Business? Only if fortified by a steady stream of Zoloft. Hollywood? Phonies everywhere.

There’s a reason, through history, why so many acclaimed writers have chosen sports or dabbled in it. Simply, it offers the meatiest subject matter with some of the highest readership. Check out an annual anthology called “The Best American Sports Writing,” edited this year by native Chicagoan Michael Wilbon, and tell me you’ll find richer material anywhere. Disgustingly, the Internet has spawned more than a few amateurs who write for junk sites emphasizing sleaze and fabrication, such as the dope who put $12,000 in a paper bag for what allegedly were photos of Brett Favre’s penis. Sometimes I cringe as bloggers and snark artists try too hard to get attention in nonsensical ways.

As Wilbon writes in the anthology:

“Let’s just say that things have changed and rather dramatically. Now anyone who can text or Tweet can be a sportswriter, in a sense, despite never having gotten any closer to ringside, to practice, the star’s locker, or the GM’s office than, say, a cashier at the corner grocery. There’s so much to sift through now, blogs and alerts and things that loosely resemble columns, though not the stylings of (Shirley) Povich or (Jim) Murray or the late Ralph Wiley, because who knows if subject and verb even have a chance to agree in what we call ‘new media.’”

Just the same, the Internet also remains a forum for premium sports writing—Bill Plaschke in Los Angeles, Rick Reilly at ESPN, Dan Shaughnessy in Boston, S.L. Price at Sports Illustrated, John Branch at The New York Times, and best-selling author Buzz Bissinger among the best. Continues Wilbon:

“As this volume shows, remarkably, in this new world of 140 characters, there is still thoughtful and insightful sports writing to be found—more of it than ever, actually, critical without resorting to ridicule.”

For every punk hack trying to increase hit totals by ripping an ESPN sportscaster, there thankfully are places such as The New York Times, USA Today and ESPN.com that have moved into the digital era by doing sports journalism the right way.

I’ve been consuming the news since I first picked up a paper in our Pittsburgh home and read stories aloud at age 3, stunning a room full of adults. I’ve been writing sports since 15, when I set up a meeting with the publisher of a small newspaper. Some people think I went away the last two years because of a court case; in truth, after compressing about 50 years of work into 25, I’ve merrily taken two years off in L.A. to recharge for the next 25.

Someone asked if I prefer to have my old jobs back. Nope. I want my new job—multimedia in nature, commenting at large, dictated by the most important stories instead of each day’s news. Yes, the scandals must be covered, the jerks exposed, and the bad franchises scrutinized. But if I still was writing in Chicago, it would be the same five stories swirling in the same monotonous circle—Tom Ricketts and Theo Epstein perpetuating the 104-year-and-running Cub sickness, the White Sox staying competitive but not quite achieving what they should, whiny Jay Cutler symbolizing the continuing Bears’ trend of raising hopes and inevitably failing, the Bulls still letting you down in the post-Jordan years by not making bold moves to surround Derrick Rose with the necessary talent, the Blackhawks joyfully winning once and straining to get close again. At least the franchises, while hardly purring at desired levels, are succeeding more than bombing out. Once known for sports futility that was borderline comical, Chicago in this generation has experienced six NBA championships, a Stanley Cup, a Super Bowl victory and, on one side of town, a World Series celebration.

Yet you know and I know that things could be better. At my count, L.A. has a dozen sports superstars—Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, Jared Weaver, David Beckham and a Stanley Cup-winning hockey team.

Chicago has…Derrick Rose. (No, Mr. Eig, Brian Urlacher is not a superstar anymore.)

What has excited me, since leaving Chicago four years ago, has been the chance to focus on the national picture. October may be the coolest month in sports. As I begin to write this, I’m watching four baseball playoff games in a 12-hour span, also known as Bud Selig’s wet dream. You have Buster Posey proving why he’s MVP. You have Dusty Baker, a postseason flop again, running his team out of a potential big inning and losing another series. You have the Cardinals still carving out late-night miracles without Tony La Russa and Pujols, and the Washington Nationals flopping, in part, because management foolishly shelved Stephen Strasburg. You have Joe Girardi managing hours after his father died, and a night after he showed the wisdom and guts to pinch-hit Raul Ibanez for useless Alex Rodriguez. You have the payroll-lean Oakland Athletics, in a story that one-ups “Moneyball,” taking the potent Detroit Tigers to five games. The lords who run the game don’t deserve such theater after dulling down baseball to a distant No. 3, behind the NFL and NBA, as a spectacle. Anyone for a 20-second clock between pitches?

Over the weekend, the thrills grew greater as fabulous stories converged. Notre Dame mounts a game-winning goal-line stand that might lead to a national-title shot and a Heisman Trophy for a budding legend, Manti Te’o, who lost his girlfriend to leukemia and his grandmother to illness on Sept. 11 and is handling tragedy with uncommon grace. A planet of Armstrong devotees is deciding whether to remember him as the steroids fiend who bullied everyone or the humanitarian who’s trying to help other cancer survivors. The Yankees overcome a 4-0 deficit with another belt by the astonishing Ibanez, only to lose Game 1 of the American League championship series while Derek Jeter, usually sturdier than the Statue of Liberty, is carried off with a broken ankle. If the Tigers reach the World Series again, isn’t it another reminder that owner Mike Ilitch—in a town ravaged perhaps beyond repair—has been a far better baseball owner in Detroit than what we’ve seen on both sides of Chicago?

The NFL? Once the best commissioner in sports, Roger Goodell is the new anti-Christ, exposed as an arrogantly reckless prosecutor in the New Orleans bounty crisis and a helpless ownership puppet in the replacement-officials farce that still could affect the final standings. The Bears have survived their Green Bay debacle, but in the crunch, do you trust Cutler and Lovie Smith? Are you as tired of the media’s romance with Tim Tebow as I am? Won’t Andrew Luck, despite a rough Sunday, have a better and healthier career than RGIII? Patriots and Falcons in the Super Bowl, anyone?

Out in L.A., every Nash highlight and Howard interview is devoured. The locals have nowhere near the passion of Chicago fans, not surprising in that Chicago sports are generational in scope and more people seem to grow up in Chicago and never leave than we see in any other American city. L.A.’s identity and self-esteem aren’t attached to sports; too many people flock here from elsewhere and care more about their native teams. When the Dodgers and Angels missed the playoffs, despite outrageous payrolls that may swell to a combined $400 million next season, the fans complained for an hour or two, and then headed to the beach. They care, but they don’t live and die with every fastball, spiral, jumper, and slapshot as Chicagoans do.

I hope Mr. Eig now understands why sports writing is a lifelong passion for me, assuming my life lasts much longer. Why do I like it? Because I’m pretty good at it, when others are not. And because I still know why sports matter, when others do not.

And because I’m willing to argue, swear to Papa Bear, that Lance Briggs also has had a better career than Brian Urlacher.

STORY ART: Photo of Derrick Rose courtesy Keith Allison/cc.

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