In Adulthood, Book Takes on a Second Life
Though it’s programmed into my sports fan DNA, I’m not enamored with ESPN’s current version of SportsCenter. It’s still packed with sports news and analysis, but I have to endure innumerable talking heads, corporate-sponsored segments, and a screen that’s crammed with news items, gee-whiz graphics, and Hannah Storm’s sex kitten routine. I’m all for a little oomph in my morning programming, but poor Hannah’s logic is to combine her good looks and the cougar trend to dress like the corporate version of Emma Peel.
Why do I come back every morning? I guess I hope for a whiff of what brought me to SC in 1996: Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, longtime hosts of the 11:00 p.m. edition. It’s hard to remember now because Olbermann has become a political animal, but the duo was a breath of fresh air in the bland world of sports highlights. Olbermann and Patrick knew their stuff and were polished, but they took nothing too seriously and had fun doing it. Mike Lupica, the longtime sports columnist at the New York Daily News, put it best: “They show up every time as if they’ve just taken over the principal’s office.”
Their shows felt downright chummy, and during my freshman year at college there were days when I really needed that. These guys were almost friends. So, when they wrote a book, I couldn’t have been more excited. Forget about random hook-ups or a resident advisor with a lax policy on underage drinking. I wanted that book more than anything.
Typically, youthful passions flame out when adulthood arrives. I got The Big Show: A Tribute to ESPN’s SportsCenter on Christmas 1997 (Olbermann had left ESPN that summer) and have kept it close to me ever since. It’s a terrific book, funny and intelligent and filled with great anecdotes, but that’s not why I treasure it. As a professional writer, The Big Show has become my security blanket, a self-help book that’s actually helpful.
As much as I love writing for a living, the job requires you to take your lumps. Between indifferent editors, unanswered pitch letters, and inflexible deadlines, it’s easy to feel inadequate. Patrick and Olbermann’s straightforward, honest counsel in chapter seven has kept me on course. It’s comforting to know that those who excel at a similar craft—Olbermann and Patrick did all their own writing on SportsCenter—have struggled. I always hear about some young dynamo landing a staff job at Esquire or getting a book contract, but The Big Show reveals a less glamorous path to mass media’s promise land. And, man, it is a breath of fresh air.
“Ours is an overnight success story—if you consider 1967 to 1997 overnight,” Patrick writes. His professional career began by playing religious tapes Sunday mornings at a Dayton radio station, his penance for expecting to land a job upon graduating college without relevant internships or experience. After four years in radio, Patrick worked as a gopher in the sports department of a local TV station, getting on air when the backup sportscaster had to take the weekend off in anticipation of his wife giving birth. Olbermann was relentless and achieved success far earlier than Patrick, but it was far from smooth. Seconds before a twenty-one-year-old Keith delivered his sports report across New York, legendary newsman Will Spens offered some criticism: “Your entire delivery stinks,” Spens said to Olbermann over a bank commercial. “You can go up to Yankee Stadium and interview everybody in the place and edit the tape for ten hours and you still don’t sound good.”
Olbermann and Patrick worked for low pay, making mistakes and learning along the way. They took advantage of opportunities, but luck played a role. Olbermann’s easy availability—UPI had a sportscaster leave on Monday, July 2nd and had little time to find a replacement—got him his first post-college radio job. On vacation in Atlanta, Patrick visited CNN to drop off an audition tape. Refusing to leave the tape and go home, Patrick insisted on speaking to someone in the sports department to get an opinion. The secretary actually called CNN’s vice president for sports, Bill MacPhail, to handle Patrick.
MacPhail: We don’t look at tapes when people drop them by, young man. Just leave it and we’ll get back to you.
Me: Look, Mr. MacPhail, I may never get back this way again. I’m heading back to Ohio and…
MacPhail: You’re from Ohio? I grew up just outside of Columbus. Gee, what do you think State’s going to do this year? How do the Buckeyes look? What—well, come on in, let me look at the tape. What was your name again?
They hired me the same day to work at CNN Headline News.
It’s also an inspirational book. Olbermann, in advising aspiring broadcasters on getting a job, urges them to flood the market with tapes. “You only need one positive reply to get started—and this isn’t the softball toss at the county fair: You’re permitted to take as many shots as you want.” Later he emphasizes not to take rejection personally: “Remember that if the news director of the 1,500-watt radio station in Keokuk decides not to hire you, it may very well be the case that he’s only working in Keokuk because he’s not good enough at what he does to get a better job.”
Those two passages have become my professional mantra, providing comfort during the times when it seems as if my resume and clips are smothered in the H1N1 virus. There’s always another opportunity. There’s always someone who recognizes your talents. Thirteen years later and Olbermann and Patrick are still a presence in my life, though it’s in a way I never could have envisioned.
Books mentioned in this column:
The Big Show: A Tribute to ESPN’s SportsCenter by Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick. (Pocket Books, 1997)
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.