Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Vanishing Marketplace of Sports Ideas

Last month, a former sportswriting colleague, Vic Ziegel of the New York Daily News, died at the age of 74. Vic was about the best companion I can imagine, witty, kind, the sort of person who makes time fly by in the best possible way. His passing is a tremendous sorrow to those who knew him, even those like myself for whom that acquaintance was slight.

This is not an obituary for a good man. The reason I bring up Vic is that for my money, and the money of a goodly number of New Yorkers, he was a great sportswriter. At least, he was the kind of sportswriter I tried and probably mostly failed to be. Ziegel's prose was graceful, easy and a simple pleasure to read. (As is almost always the case, that grace and ease were the products of agonizingly hard mental labor). Most of all, I admired Vic's temperament as a writer. He treated the people in sports with dignity when they deserved it, since for those folks, it is the most important thing in their lives. But in Ziegel's writing, it was always obvious that the reason he liked sports was because they entertained him, and he liked sportswriting because it gave him the opportunity to entertain others in turn.

That was and is my idea about sports, too. And I admired Vic to the max because he could transmit that mindset so elegantly to his readers. I had and have to settle for intermittently as my adverb in that phrase.

Aside from personal loss, that's what's sticking with me about Vic Ziegel's passing. The essayist, for want of a better word, sports columnist is passing, too. The entire way of thinking he represented is getting harder and harder to find in sports journalism. Sports journalism is infinitely poorer for it, and I think fans (readers, listeners, etc.) know it.

There's very little new under the sun in sports commentary. The Opinionator school of thought, the tough guy who is either cynical or outraged on a daily basis, was a common feature of newspapers before World War I. Jimmy Cannon, an outstanding writer, pretty much still holds the trophy in this regard. Cannon invented the series of one sentence opinions column. Boy, he would have torn it up on Twitter.

There were also guys whose forte was humor, wisecrackers for want of a better term. These chaps (and ladies, we'll get to women commentators in a few graphs) were and are rare, for the simple reason nothing on earth is hardly to write consistently well than humor. As a kid growing up, I loved reading Jim Murray. Once I became a writer myself, I was in awe of him. Funny for 50 years on deadline. That's like Michael Phelps winning eight gold medals at eight straight Olympics.

Now we move to category three -- the Conversationalists. These were and are the commentators who are primarily storytellers, as Vic was. Here's what I saw, here's what I thought, all expressed in the best English language I can muster.

The conversationalists got a big boost when women started becoming sports columnists. Back in the day, I liked hanging out with my female colleagues because far more than my male colleagues, they liked talking about writing and about reading. That was our job after all.

The boost hasn't lasted. The Opinionators are now not only the dominant force in sports commentating, they're damn near the only force. It's where the money is, and commentators must eat, too. My former colleague Tony Massarotti was a damn fine baseball writer. Talk show hosting, let's just say it doesn't come naturally to him. However, Tony would have to be an idiot not to choose what's obviously the more lucrative occupation.

This is boring. When Columnists A and B and Talk Show Hosts C and D all have the exact same perspective on yesterday's game, we sports consumers are stuck with a choice of Coke or Pepsi. And like those two fine beverages, the sugar starts to rot our mental teeth.

I am tired of commentary that goes like this: Ain't it Great/Awful What Happened? Most of all, I am tired of the implicit assumption that any topic in sports is by definition important enough to get so freakin' emphatic about it. I'm tired of being yelled at (you can yell in print quite well, thank you) when what I want to do is kick back and enjoy myself with a form of recreation I've loved my whole life long.

With Vic Ziegel gone, there's one less place I can go for that. If I'd never met him, I'd mourn that loss.


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