If I were to write a farewell column I would expect one of the following reactions:
1) We thought you left years ago.
2) Who are you anyway?
For the past 17 years, I have worked behind the scenes as Executive Sports Editor. Before that, I was a sports columnist best known for a feature that ran every Saturday morning for 17 years. Before that, I was a baseball beat writer.
February 9, 1985, was my first day here. Today is my last day, the last of a 50-year career.
In my time as a writer, I covered 11 Super Bowls, 13 World Series, five NBA Finals, and every major golf tournament except the British Open. I was on the scene when Kirk Gibson hit the home run off Dennis Eckersley, when Michael Jordan hit his last shot (the first time), when Joe Montana threw four fourth-quarter touchdown passes in Philadelphia, when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s record by playing his 2,131st consecutive game, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa staged the great home run race of 1998.
Suddenly I have found myself at retirement age. I am retiring.
While I’d like to be remembered as an extraordinary writer, it was a column of one-liners that most people remember. It was called In the Wake of the Week, but the working title was the Saturday Smartass.
Arrested for bumping his sports car into that of his ex-wife on a Miami highway, Jose Canseco said in that situation you’re just looking to make contact.
The Giants have a Pole, a Hook, and a Lake on their roster. All they need is a Fish.
49ers’ victory song after New Orleans Saints coach Jim Mora mismanaged the clock to blow a late lead: “When a team throws the ball when it should run the ball, that’s a Mora.”
Ah, literature. Extraordinary stuff.
This story began at age 14 with a high school journalism teacher who wrote something on the first story I turned in. I can’t remember the words she wrote, only that they were encouraging and they were written in green ink.
Through the wonders of social media, I found her recently, thanked her and confirmed that she wrote in green ink. I edit in green ink. Red ink is jarring, discouraging, a stop sign. Green means keep going.
“It makes me feel really old to have a former student retiring,” she wrote last month (not in green ink, but on Facebook), “but it also makes me really proud to have read your very first stories and watched from a distance as you so ably achieved your dreams.”
The teacher knew the sports editor at our hometown weekly and before long I was writing a weekly story for The Brookfield (Wis.) News. My first byline – autumn 1974 – paid $5. Every Sunday night I pounded away on a small manual typewriter — a hammer and chisel wouldn’t have required more effort — because deadline was Monday morning. It was on those Sunday nights that the hook was set.
Making something from nothing but words, creating a tapestry that told a story, produced a feeling in me that I hadn’t known before and still haven’t found in any other endeavor. It was a warm feeling deep inside, a mellow glow. It didn’t come until after I had typed -30-, journalism code for the end of a story, but it could last for days.
I went to college at the University of Wisconsin. My first day on campus, I found the office of The Daily Cardinal, the student newspaper. I did not receive the welcome I was expecting. Yeah, just leave your name and phone number with that guy over there. As a 17-year-old freshman, I thought a lot more of myself than they did.
One afternoon a couple weeks later, the phone rang in my dorm room. It was the sports editor. Could I get over to the football team’s practice pronto? Could I ever!
I arrived in time for coach John Jardine’s post-practice press briefing. There I was, standing among the people whose bylines I had been reading for years. All of them, come to life, like a field of dreams.
“Everyone got what they need?” I heard Jardine ask.
The pros nodded and closed their notebooks. I looked down at mine. I hadn’t written a word. Panic. Failure. Career over.
“Are you sure you got everything you need?” Jardine asked, pulling me back from the other reporters.
He took me up to his office and filled my notebook.
Through the wonders of social media, I found John Jardine’s son a couple of years ago and shared this story.
“That sounds like my Dad,” he said and he thanked me.
I was Sports Editor of the Daily Cardinal my junior year. One day the phone rang at a desk near mine. I picked it up. The guy on the other end said he was from United Press International, the newswire service that rivaled the Associated Press and counted among its alumni Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Helen Thomas and sports columnist Milton Richman. Did I know anyone who would be interested in working weekends – 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., $5 an hour — tracking down high school football scores? Did I ever!
One day, clearly in desperation, the editor-in-chief asked if I could cover something at the State Capitol. I didn’t know a damn thing about politics or anything else besides sports, but I said yes and did well enough to start getting assignments in sports. Wisconsin Badgers football and basketball games. Sunday drives to Green Bay to cover the Packers, the team on which I’d cut my teeth as a sports fan.
Bart Starr was the Packers’ quarterback when I was a kid, a god-like figure in Green Bay and throughout Wisconsin until he became head coach and proved incapable of returning the franchise to glory.
I was 23, only a few years removed from hero worship when I sat across from Starr in his office and asked the tough question. I was a professional journalist now, working full-time for UPI. Starr was failing as the Packers’ coach, and his job was on the line. Was it not?
“I’m not even going to dignify that question with an answer,” Starr said, staring holes through me.
Through the wonders of social media… nah, I didn’t.
At 24, I was named UPI-Wisconsin state sports editor. Impressive on its face, it ranks as the most bogus title I’ve had, even more than the one I’ve worn for the past 17 years. As UPI-Wisconsin Sports Editor, I managed a staff of 1.5 people — me and a part-time sports writer in Milwaukee.
One day the phone rang. It was the Sports Editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel, the morning paper in my hometown, the one I’d grown up reading. Would I be interested in covering the Brewers? Would I ever!
The Brewers were defending American League champs – yes, they were in the A.L. then. I was in over my head, my first crisis of confidence, the first time that I thought I wasn’t cut out for a profession I’d chosen at age 14.
Still, I did well enough over two seasons for the phone to ring again. It was the Sports Editor of the San Jose Mercury News. Would I be interested in interviewing for a baseball job with them? You know what I said.
It was 1985. There was no such thing as the internet and I didn’t bother doing any research. San Jose, I assumed, was near the Mexico border. Must be a job covering the San Diego Padres. I was caught off guard when asked during the interview which team I preferred to cover.
“Whichever one you want me to cover,” I heard myself say.
And that’s how I came to cover the Oakland Athletics from 1985-88. (The other guy who interviewed that day got the Giants job.)
After a couple of seasons, six in all, I was worn out. The daily demands, the smoking, the drinking, the travel, the unrelenting anxiety – I finished the 1988 World Series at 137 pounds, about 30 pounds less than I’d started.
It might have been my physical appearance more than my performance that led the Sports Editor to grant my request to leave the beat. He even let me design my own job. A few months into it, he asked how I was liking it. I hated it. How would you like to be a columnist?
I wrote three columns a week for a couple of years, I offered a fourth column. It would run on Saturdays, down the left rail of the Sports cover, top to bottom, a series of one-liners in the wake of the week in sports. It became a sensation.
A friend of mine wrote a book on Pete Newell, and I found something I had in common with the legendary basketball coach. Consumed by stress, Pete Newell left coaching at age 44. Consumed by stress, I left writing at 42. (Pete lived to be 93. I’ll take it!)
I left writing to run a toy store, a shocking development to all except those who knew me well. Those people were merely stunned. The paper asked if I would stay on to write the Saturday column. Would I? Yeah, I guess so.
Four months later, the toy-store experience was over and I returned to the paper full-time. They let me come back as an editor, figuring I would ultimately return to writing. Someday I will, probably. Sprigs of green have been popping up through the ashes for the last couple of years.
I never set out to be a Sports Editor, never knew I wanted to be one. But in 2006, circumstances led to me being given the position on an interim basis. Now, I never want to be the “interim” anything. A career in sports writing will tell you that “interim” is a loser’s venue.
So I named myself “Acting Sports Editor.” That’s the title that appeared under my name every day in the Sports section.
In 2007, I got a new boss.
“What’s with this ‘acting’ thing?” he growled. “Change it, or I’ll find another actor.”
I went to the desk of my page designer to make the change. What did I want to change it to, he asked. I shrugged. How would you like to be Executive Sports Editor?
It’s a gag that has lasted 17 years, a gig that ends today.
This has been one blessed career, as you can see. Right place, right time, right answer when the phone rang. How many people get to be what they wanted to be at age 14? I wanted to be a sportswriter and for 26 years I was. When I couldn’t do it anymore, I got to be Sports Editor — Executive Sports Editor, no less. Who’s got it better than me, Jim Harbaugh?
I’ve been in a deeply reflective mood these past few weeks.
My late grandfather, Al Doss, took me to Wrigley Field at age 9, igniting my love of baseball, and he helped me through that first crisis of confidence. He traveled for a living and he sent me a note from the road.
“I’ve read a lot of sports pages,” he wrote, “and you don’t take a back seat to nobody.”
My late father introduced me to sports at age 7 — specifically the 1965 Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi — and he imbued in me a work ethic that has driven me for 50 years.
My mother, still kicking hard at 88, is the source of whatever amount of natural talent I possess. The valedictorian at a private high school, she became a wife and a mother to four. We were not well-to-do, but she found room in the monthly budget to make us a two-newspaper household.
And she bought the typewriter that started it all.
Our Executive Sports Editor retires