Keeping the Passion Alive by Keeping Away


Pete Croatto


Sports books have given me so much: a love of reading; numerous examples of good writing to admire and emulate; a workout any time I’ve changed addresses. Some have also provided the following valuable lesson: It’s probably better to be eaten alive by wolverines than to become a full-time sportswriter for a newspaper or a magazine.

For a short while, I toyed with the idea. Then, during my senior year of college, I read The Worst Team Money Could Buy, Bob Klapsich and John Harper’s account of the 1992 New York Mets’ wretched season. As writers who covered that team for two big-city newspapers, the book was crammed with great stories and insider’s information on a team destroyed by overpriced, underachieving talent. 

The team wasn’t the only thing that stank. According to Klapsich and Harper, the Mets beat—though much coveted—was a tedious, energy-draining job full of constant travel, sullen players, and frantic writing under hair-pulling deadlines. They made it clear that this was hard, thankless work that allowed no room for being a fan. A job like that made me long for covering zoning board meetings and county fairs.

Time has not changed that assessment. The more I’ve read, the theme of unsatisfied sportswriters has popped up, making me thankful that I’ve chosen the fan’s path. In God Save the Fan, Will Leitch writes about a dream arrangement turned sour: covering University of Illinois basketball games for his school paper and for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

We [the beat reporters] knew the drill. Ask bland questions, receive bland answers, return to bland press box, write bland game stories, go home to bland lives. I was young enough not to get destroyed by this routine. Most were not as fortunate. The press box banter usually revolved around the dryness of the buffet chicken and the lack of satisfactory Ann Arbor strip clubs. The other reporters, at more established papers like the Peoria Journal Star and the Aurora Beacon News, looked defeated. Of all the emotions chiseled onto their faces, “enjoyment of an athletic contest” was in dead last, just behind “worry about whether or not the iron was left on.”      

At the end of this story, Leitch’s face ends up inches away from a naked, hulking basketball player’s genitalia. “I thought a lot differently about sports journalism after that,” he recalls.

Before writing first-rate sports biographies, Jeff Pearlman covered baseball for Sports Illustrated. Most sports fans would kill for that job, writing about men playing a kid’s game, and blah, blah, blah. In the prologue to The Bad Guys Won!, Pearlman discusses how that job eventually drained the enthusiasm out of him.

As a young teenager I would sit by the TV, glove in hand, and mimic Rafael Santana’s arching throws from short to first. Now, as an adult, the last thing I wanted was to emulate the men I covered. Baseball players just seemed so boring. How many times could I hear some second-rate shortstop ramble on about “First, I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who made me a baseball player and brought me to the great city of Houston to be an Astro and gave me the strength to dive into the hole and catch that grounder?” Even worse, why was it that glib conversation between jock and journalist has been replaced by corporate name droppings and meaningless clichés?

Pearlman still has little love for the sportswriter’s life, recently writing on his blog that the press box is “just a miserable place to observe a sporting event, generally alongside unhappy people who spend 80 percent of their time checking e-mail, downloading porn, calling so and so to complain about so and so.”

Probably the most spirited case against sportswriting as employment that I’ve encountered comes from an unlikely source: noted pop culture essayist Chuck Klosterman, who once worked at the Akron Beacon Journal. What he writes in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is a little extreme, but based on sportswriters I knew, the spirit is right on.

If you want to become jaded and bitter in the shortest period possible, become a sportswriter. You will spend your Friday nights trying to talk to high school kids who have nothing to say, and you will have to ask them questions until they give you a quote the proves it. You will spend your Saturday afternoons talking to college players who will earnestly talk about school spirit two hours before they rape the first girl unluckiest enough to chug a GHB kamikaze. And if you become really good at your job, you will eventually get to live in hotels for weeks at a time, alongside millionaire pro athletes who—if not for the ability to perform one socially irrelevant act—would quite possibly kill you and steal your car.

The best part about being a sports fan is distance, which allows your passion or hatred for a team or a player to remain pure. Becoming a sportswriter obliterates any essence of being a fan. It becomes a job, and one that’s usually pretty miserable. I’m sure there are writers and columnists who manage to maintain their love of sports while catching a red eye flight on their kid’s birthday. I know there are men and women who overlook the drudgery and the brusque answers to gain satisfaction from covering the New Jersey Nets. The number of good sportswriters proves that.

I know that I could give it a try, but it’s too big of a risk. I’d rather read my books and watch the games without hate. 

Books mentioned in this column:
The Worst Team Money Could Buy: The Collapse of the New York Mets by Bob Klapsich and John Harper (Bison Books, 2005)
God Save the Fan: How Preening Sportscasters, Athletes Who Speak in the Third person, and the Occasional Convicted Quarterback Have Take the Fun out of Sports [and how we can get it back] by Will Leitch (It Books, 2009)
The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform—and Maybe the Best by Jeff Pearlman (Harper Collins, 2004)
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low-Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman (Scribner, 2004)

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, 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.

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