The Yang Slinger: Vol. II
Ranking my 64 favorite sports writers of 2021, five questions with the best publicist in the biz, yet another humiliating story from my early career and inspiring words via a Nobel winner ...
The 64: My Favorite Sports Writers of 2021
Back in 1999, when Stephen Cannella and I were young baseball writers trying to work our way up the Sports Illustrated masthead, we wrapped a long (they were always long) MLB season by returning home from the World Series and presuming there’d be a period of rest.
At the very last minute, the big guns decided that, to conclude the century, Sports Illustrated would publish a special year-end issue by ranking the top 50 athletes of the past 100 years—from every single state (with a different cover for every state). And what two scribes were assigned this God-awful task?
Cannella and (cripes) Pearlman.
To say it sucked is to understate suckiness. It was brutal. Long nights of seeking out that 50th elusive Delawarian, or desperately searching for anyone from Wyoming who might have pitched a Big League inning. Toward the end, with deadline approaching, we (well, I’ll speak for myself and say “I”) started to wing it. Were there a gap in a state, I’d sit in the library, dig through old media guides and … first NFL player to come up from North Dakota was gonna be slotted in the hole (you’re very welcome, Randy Hedberg).
How erratic and incomplete was the process? Evander Holyfield is one of the Top 20 fighters in the history of professional boxing. We (cough) forgot to place him anywhere in Georgia.
The point is, I’m not a big fan of lists. Of Best This and Biggest That; Hottest Teen Stars of 2017 or Coolest Celebrity Cars of 2013. Whenever I see one, I think back to late 1999 and break out in hives.
I recently felt an odd, unfamiliar craving to list my favorite modern-day sports writers. Why? I don’t know. But … I went for it. I took a week, read a ton of stuff, asked (via Twitter and Facebook) for writers people love, combed through newspapers and websites and archives and … here we sit.
Before you dig in, some very important points:
• This was my rankings when I did my rankings. AKA: A day later, they’re probably different. A week later, even more different. It has nothing to do with literal “best”—because there is no such thing as “best” when it comes to writing. Some people like my books. Some people hate my books. No one is wrong in their opinions.
• My singular requirement was all 64 have to be writing at least fairly regularly. Oh, and books don’t count.
• One thing I love is the blossoming diversity of this industry. There’s still a long way to go. But when I worked at The Tennessean, we had very few African-American sportswriters. Sports Illustrated—even worse. These days there are so many voices from so many perspectives when it comes to race, gender, background, etc. It’s inspiring.
• I hope this reads as a celebration of sports writing. Because I love this business, and I believe—in this age of “Fake news” nonsense—it’s worth embracing.
Sally Jenkins, Washington Post: Sally is the best sports columnist in America—and maybe the best columnist in America. She’s as deft a wordsmith as anyone in the business. She turns her shit around fast. But not fast and sloppy. Fast and tight. She sees things others don’t, and is able to perfectly express her thoughts. I read a lot of Dan Jenkins back in my SI days. His daughter is equally spectacular.
From: “Football made Jon Gruden. Now the NFL must reckon with its creation.” (Oct. 12, 2021): “What makes [Gruden’s] casually superior, straight and center-parted chauvinism so creepy is the traditionalness of his upbringing in the game. … As a young man he worked for the most iconic and influential coaching-tree franchises: the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers. He spent years employed by ESPN and “Monday Night Football.” They all knew who he was and how he talked. Same with that unctuous scion Bruce Allen and the pervy trading of lewd pictures of topless women. It was learned inside the game.”
Wright Thompson, ESPN.com: What? How isn’t Wright first on the list? What is wrong with you? I hear it! I hear it! I hear it! And I can’t totally argue. These lists are purely subjective, and I do believe Wright is—pound for pound—the best pure writer in the country, and a man straight out of the Willie Morris/Rick Bragg lot of prose. So I guess my thin answer is: Sally writes more. But Wright is as good as we’ve got.
From: “The inheritance of Archie Manning” (Dec. 11, 2020): “The Mississippi heat is merciful this early in the morning. He's got a hearing aid. When he walks, his knees sound like someone learning to drive a stick shift. If his house caught on fire, he jokes, the first thing he'd grab would be his cane. She is elegant and funny. They've been married for 49 years and smile at each other a lot. Everyone who walks past their condo waves and feels like they've been given an audience when the Mannings wave back.”
Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated: I worked side by side with Tom at Sports Illustrated. Scratch that—I worked at SI when Tom did, and took mental notes. The man is a symphony. That sounds cornball. But it’s true. I’ve never seen someone work a clubhouse like Verducci. It was a pool hustler owning angles. The rest of us were shuffling from hero to hero. Tom was in the shadows, finding. Exploring. Uncovering. Oh, and he can fucking write with the absolute best of them (And let’s not even mention his hair, dammit).
From: “Bryce Harper Doesn’t Want Your Praise. But He Needs Your Doubt.” (Sept. 21, 2021): “Harper is a unique talent. He is the best fastball slugger in baseball, a smart hitter who doesn’t want his mind clouded with analytics, the major league leader in slugging and on-base plus slugging, the first left-handed hitter ever with 200 homers, 100 stolen bases and 800 walks at age 28, the first player to sign a contract worth $330 million and quite possibly the first person to shut down his IG comments for being too positive.”
Steve Politi, The Star-Ledger: Steve is the world’s most underrated sports writer, and I’ll scream that from the hills. He doesn’t write for a huge outpost, he doesn’t plaster himself all over ESPN, he can’t be found howling at Skip or Stephen A. He simply brings forth absolutely masterful pieces week after week after week.
From: “The Predator in Plain Sight” (Sept. 27, 2021): “The last thing Isis Montoya likely felt before she died was the hard edges of a stucco wall scraping across her young
face. Five months after her death, I run my hand over the same sharp ridges. Below me, the beat of techno music from the notorious Adelita strip club — THUMP-THUMP-THUMP — shakes the white tile floor that had been covered with her blood.”
Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated: So … Jon is probably my closest friend in the business. I literally met my wife at his wedding. We’ve worked together for many moons. But—leanings be damned—I can’t think of anyone who’d argue against his Top 5 placement. Dating back to our SI days, Jon has always been an excellent scribe. But what he does particularly well is talk to people, and have them open up. His secrets: decency, curiosity and likeablity. He’s just a particularly good egg of a human. And, for my dough, a generational journalist.
From: “Canadian Club, Neat. American Success Story, on the Rocks” (Jan. 29, 2021): “When the race ended—Smith took gold, Carlos bronze—Ax sprinted down the gangway to see his friends. Carlos had run wearing an OPHR button, but Smith had not. He asked for one, and Axthelm shared his. The two sprinters then took the podium. In an image that endures a half-century later, as the national anthem played, they bowed their heads and each raised a gloved, clenched fist in protest against racial injustice. The Los Angeles Times would later note of the famous moment (photos of which capture the white buttons, partially obscuring the U in USA on each runner’s track jacket): ‘Whereas folks looking at it draw back in shock, [Axthelm] smiled knowingly. It was like cashing a bet on a race in the bag.’”
Dana O’Neil, The Athletic: ESPN letting O’Neil go several years ago was the Packers cutting Kurt Warner. Well, it’s the Packers cutting Kurt Warner after he already compiled a bunch of 4,000-passing yard seasons and proved himself to be a future Hall of Famer. In other words, Dana is first ballot. She has all the checks—works a room, check. Respected in the biz, check. Reports the hell out of a story, check. Kick-ass writer, check.
From: “How Drew Valentine has ‘handled it all,’ from becoming Loyola’s head coach to being there for his new family” (July 26, 2021): “Drew Valentine can’t find his car keys. He has just finished polishing off breakfast at a Marriott buffet and needs to skedaddle. It’s a little past 8:30 in the morning, LakePoint Champions Center is a 25-minute ride without factoring in the notorious Atlanta-area traffic and Valentine has a recruit to watch in a 9:15 game. He unzips the pocket on top of his backpack, slaps his pants pockets and rechecks the backpack yet again before pausing. ‘Oh right,’’ he says. ‘I valeted.’ This is not necessarily a terrible brain camp considering Valentine is working on the fumes of July recruiting. Except he went through this near exact drill about 15 minutes earlier.”
Seth Wickersham, ESPN.com: Seth and Wright Thompson are the Hall & Oates of bonus features (aka: long-form sports journalism). They’re close pals who work for the same outlet and produce one quality, deeply researched piece after another (admittedly, this comparison works better if one dedicates himself to a particularly sweet ‘80s ‘stache). So why is Wright No. 2, Seth No. 7? I have no idea.
From: “For Kraft, Brady and Belichick, is this the beginning of the end?” (Jan. 4, 2018): “Brady and Belichick weren't only pushing the boundaries of what a team could accomplish. They also were challenging basic understandings of how a group of high achievers escape the usual pulls of ego and pride. For 17 years, the Patriots have withstood everything the NFL and opponents could throw their way, knowing that if they were united, nobody could touch them. Now they're threatening to come undone the only way possible: from within.”
Dave Kindred, mortonladypotters.com: Dave is best known as the longtime Washington Post sports columnist who wrote extensively about Muhammad Ali. Several years ago, however, he left the big city for Morton, Illinois—where he now chronicles the highs and lows (mainly highs) of the Morton High girls basketball team. It’s the equivalent of Frank Sinatra bolting Manhattan to do a 10-year residency at the Dardanelle (Ark.) Community Playhouse … and absolutely loving it.
From: “Final Game on the Final Day” (March 12, 2021): “Next time down, from about 10 o’clock on the right arc, Krupa put up a shot from way out there – wait, no, not a shot, it was a long, looping pass to Raquel Frakes hustling to the hoop from the left side. A touch off in timing, Frakes caught the pass and, instead of scoring there, took two steps through the paint to score. This time, Becker said nothing, but there came to his bearded face the serene look of a coach who had just won a game.”
Candace Buckner, Washington Post: There is nothing Candace writes that isn’t worth reading. I’m not exaggerating: There. Is. Nothing. Candace. Writes. That. Isn’t. Worth. Reading. Period.
From: “The ballad of John Wall doesn’t have to end in sorrow” (Oct. 6, 2021): “The abrupt change in the beat played out Tuesday, when the Wizards played the Rockets in the preseason opener and Wall blended into the background of the night. He wore a matching hat and white tee branded with the kind of in-your-face logo that would prompt television viewers to Google its name and a pendant encrusted with so many diamonds you could barely make out the words. Anyone familiar with Wall, though, would recognize the bling as his life motto: WALLWAY. Wall looked glossy, but his role was muted.”
Tyler Kepner, New York Times: Tyler Kepner is what you get when a r-e-a-l-l-y passionate baseball fan and an equally skilled journalist joins a newspaper that values (and cultivates) his talent. The two of us go back many moons, and what’s startling is how the dude keeps getting better. If he’s not the best newspaper baseball writer on the planet, it’s only because … eh, I digress. Tyler Kepner is the best baseball writer on the planet.
From: “With Shohei Ohtani, Baseball Embraces ‘Why Not?’” (July 12, 2021): “He pitches aggressively with the splitter, putting it on the same plane as his elite fastball. ‘The splitter is the biggest thing,’ said Olson, who is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts against Ohtani. ‘He’s got the fastball in the upper 90s with a lot of ride, but to be able to have the splitter that comes straight down off of it and the ride that plays up, it gets halfway and you’ve got to decide which way it’s going. That combined with, he’s just got a fluid, flick-it motion.’ As a hitter, Ohtani has so much power and swings so hard that he does not have to hit a ball squarely to do damage. He offers few safe zones for pitchers.”
Katie Strang, The Athletic: If I’m a team executive, or owner, and Katie Strang is in town to write about me — I am fucking terrified. She just knows how to report, and grab details, and uncover nuggets. Like, not just the color of someone’s car. The deep, troubling details that need to be exposed. One of America’s best sleuths, sports be damned.
From: “Dysfunction in the desert: Finger-pointing, fear and financial woes roil the Coyotes organization” (Feb. 16, 2021): “When he took over the Coyotes, he promised the franchise would not only become a winning organization, but also a ‘family.’ It felt that way that evening at Gutierrez’s home. Even though Meruelo was not in attendance, his adult son, Alex Jr., was there. Inside jokes were shared, old stories were retold and there was a sense of possibility for the long-floundering organization. The Coyotes had been plagued for years by unstable ownership and near-constant rumors of relocation, yet the team recently made the postseason, and Meruelo’s arrival and vision for the future buoyed hopes for revitalization. But the transition had not come without its warts.”
Jemele Hill, The Atlantic: I am so happy Jemele Hill is no longer on TV. If that sounds dickish—it shouldn’t. Jemele was plenty good at the medium. But (motherfucker!) Jemele Hill is a writer. Maybe, here in 2021, the most important sports writer in the biz. I first knew of her when we were columnists at something call ESPN’s Page 2, and her work sparkled. Now, at The Atlantic, Hill is allowed to swing away. No ESPN non-political bullshit. No tiptoeing around Sage Steele and terrified executives. Just—BAM! She’s never been better.
From: “Jon Gruden Just Put It in Writing” (Oct. 13, 2021): “Notwithstanding the occasional polite, performative gesture, the culture of football won’t improve as long as people like Gruden are elevated, protected, and prioritized in the NFL’s hierarchy. Now that his emails have become public, Gruden makes a convenient sacrificial lamb, but his departure doesn’t change the bigger picture. No matter how many social-justice slogans the NFL stencils in its end zones or allows players to put on their helmets, no matter how many prominent Black artists the league hires to perform during its Super Bowl halftime show, no matter how much money the NFL gives to anti-prejudice organizations, it will never fix its own corrosive, institutionalized racism without more fundamental change.”
Andrew Baggarly, The Athletic: The top day-to-day baseball beat writer in America. Not sure I need to say more. But I’ll add one thing—I was speaking with a friend of mine who works in the biz; telling him about this misguided list. He said, “Without Baggarly, it’s not a list.” Agreed.
From: “‘I didn’t go’: The Giants’ record-setting season ends with the slimmest of margins and a checked swing” (Oct. 15, 2021): “Wilmer Flores checked his swing in the ninth inning Thursday and started thinking about the next pitch. He kept his head down as he began to reset his feet in the batter’s box. When plate umpire Doug Eddings appealed the ruling to first base umpire Gabe Morales, Flores didn’t even bother to raise his sights. He didn’t consider the possibility that all the labor that the Giants poured into a 109-win season, into their 24-round heavyweight fight with the archrival Dodgers and into the decisive game of a tightly contested National League Division Series all rested in arbitrary balance.”
Mike Vaccaro, New York Post: Mike is on the short list for America’s best sports columnist. Also on the short list for America’s coolest journalist. Just a wonderful guy who’s savvy and smart and reads athletes extremely well.
From: “Brett Gardner keeps giving Yankees fans reasons to love him” (Aug. 16, 2021): “This is the fascinating part of the career for Brett Gardner. He has been around too long for there to be anything resembling novelty around him. He showed up for good in 2008 and has kept showing up. He is in every team photograph. He is at every spring training. Thus far, he has played in 99 of the Yankees’ 117 games. He is evidence of just how subjective fans are. Most Yankees fans have grumbled, one time or another, at Gardner’s mere presence. All-Stars have come and gone. Superstars have come and gone. Outfielders galore have come, threatened to make Gardner an afterthought; they’re all gone, too. Gardner stays.”
Evan Grant, Dallas Morning News: Grant has covered the Texas Rangers since 1997. Think about that—nineteen ninety seven. That’s 24 years of Kevin Elster and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Vincente Padilla and Dustin Nippert. And what’s most remarkable is his work still feels fresh and vibrant. That makes him special.
From “Rangers’ shutout loss in season finale mirrors frustrations of their difficult year” (Oct. 4, 2021) “It was that kind of year: Full of pain and on-field humiliation for the Rangers, ending with their first 100-loss season since 1973. The Rangers knew all this was possible going in. They knew their team was woefully inexperienced. They knew that on the search for long-term answers, they were as liable to get as many ‘no’s’ on guys as ‘yesses.’ Which brings us to this question: Was it all worth it, Chris Woodward?”
Meg Linehan, The Athletic: I am not overly passionate about women’s soccer. Or men’s soccer. But I am passionate about Linehan’s reporting—which, over these past few months, has been important and on-point. I used to have an editor who’d praise people for “having chops.” Not sure, in 2021, anyone in the biz has more chops than Meg Linehan.
From: “‘This guy has a pattern’: Amid institutional failure, former NWSL players accuse prominent coach of sexual coercion” (Sept. 30, 2021): “Early during her first season in Philadelphia, Farrelly accepted a call-up to the U.S. women’s national team. Riley told her when she returned to the Independence that she had been disloyal to her actual team and to him. She deserved to be on the national team, Riley said, but only if he was coaching it. A couple of weeks later, when the U.S. team’s coaching staff called again, she turned them down — and gave up the final spot on the 2011 World Cup roster. At the end of that season, after the Independence lost the WPS championship, and following hours out drinking and commiserating over the loss as a team, Farrelly said she felt that Riley, who at the time was 47 years old and married, coerced her into his hotel room and they had sex.”
Kurt Streeter, New York Times: Streeter has been in the game for quite a while, but this position—Times sports columnist—seems the perfect fit. In particular, it’s nice to have a male sports writer who’s extraordinarily good penning about women. Who wants to write about women.
From: “Simone Biles and the Power of ‘No’” (July 28, 2021): “Biles is the greatest, most decorated gymnast of all time. She won four gold medals in Rio five years ago and was expected to take home at least three more in Tokyo. But by saying ‘no,’ bowing out this week, and standing up for her well-being in a sports world that commodifies athletes and prizes winning at all costs, she surpasses all of those achievements in importance. Biles has thrown a wrench in the system. What that ‘no’ says is really this: Enough is enough.”
Joe Posnanski, Substack: I was pondering something this morning, and it might sound weird: I think most writers (who have done this for a spell) can imitate other writers. Like, I’m sure Ann Killion can do a solid me. I’m sure I can do a solid Wertheim. I’m sure Wertheim can do a solid Fader. I’m sure Fader can do a solid Roth. That doesn’t mean you’d nail it. It doesn’t even mean it’d be good. But few of us are that unique. But Wright Thompson and Joe Posnanski are two peers I’d never try to copy, because … I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I read Wright blindfolded, I know it’s Wright. I read Joe Posnanski—I 100 percent know it’s Joe Posnanski. And I’m happy.
From: “Ted and Satchel” (Oct. 10, 2021): “The very best baseball artifacts are, of course, in the actual museum of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But those are, for the most part, items you would expect to see. What makes the archive room so glorious is that you might see anything in here. I was once in here, and we went down some aisle and opened up some seemingly random box, and inside was Wonderboy, the bat Roy Hobbs used in the movie ‘The Natural.’”
Ariel Helwani, Substack: I don’t care much for MMA. I mean, it’s certainly eye-catching. But … not my cup o’ decaf (I’ve given up coffee). Helwani, however, makes you care. He truly puts you inside the ring … octagon … whatever. He writes vividly, and with genuine heart.
From: “The Thing About Nick Diaz” (Sept. 23, 2021): “I honestly don’t think Nick wants to fight anymore. I don’t think he likes fighting anymore. I think he loves training. I think he loves being in shape. I think he doesn’t mind sparring on a Thursday night in Stockton, but I don’t think he wants to be covered and judged and subjected to all the things that go along with being a prize fighter anymore.”
Ann Killion, San Francisco Chronicle: Killion is a San Francisco native who has been covering sports in the Bay Area for more than 25 years. If you think that sorta thing doesn’t matter … if you think a columnist from Denver can seamlessly parachute into Detroit, or a writer who knows everything about Sacramento can smoothly transition into Tulsa, well—read Ann’s work. She knows whereof she speaks, and it shows.
From: “Webb, Posey and Crawford deliver Game 1 joy for Giants fans ready to rock October” (Oct. 8, 2021): “The entire evening had the feeling of a classic ingraining itself in Bay Area memory. Legends were everywhere: Steve Young and Jerry Rice leading a “Beat L.A.” chant before the game, Barry Bonds and Chris Mullin sitting together by the Giants’ dugout. And perhaps the most heart-tugging, beloved announcers Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper throwing out first pitches together.”
Rick Telander, Chicago Sun-Times: Shit, Telander is so damn good. He’s been writing for (cough, cough) quite a long time, but it’s always so fresh and original and intelligent. If a younger writer asks, “What should I aspire to become?”—Rick Telander is an awfully strong answer.
From: “Thrill and Dale: Hunting for dreaded carp with legendary outdoors writer Dale Bowman” (Oct. 13, 2021): “There aren’t many newspaper writers like Dale left these days. Who wants to read about hunting for morels or the precision of micro-fishing — wherein you try to catch fish shorter than an inch — when you can get fungal delicacies at the gourmet grocery and a salmon filet while you’re at it. But Dale is the link between an indoor, wired world and the outdoor cradle that spawned us, the one we mostly have left behind, with little thought to its needs or health or sanctity.’’
Sam Mellinger, Kansas City Star: Back two spring trainings ago, I ran into Sam at Royals camp. When I told him my next book subject was Bo Jackson, he appeared to combust internally. “Aw, man,” he said—with a laugh and a smile (to be clear). “That’s my dream book.” So … score one for Pearlman. But here’s the win for Mellinger: He’s awesome, and region-defining, and on the very short list for Best American Sports Columnists. I briefly tried being a sports columnist—first for ESPN.com, then The Athletic. I sucked. Mellinger doesn’t suck. He’s the opposite of sucky. So, yeah, I got Bo. But Sam’s got talent.
From: “What would Terez Paylor think about hype and hoopla?” (Aug. 28, 2021): “The seat where the big laugh always came from will be empty and quiet. That seat used to be my favorite spot in the press box, even better than where they kept the chips. The Mayor has declared this Terez A. Paylor Dat. The Chiefs will present a check to the Terez A. Paylor Scholarship fund at Howard—which is now fully endowed, and how cool is that? His seat in the press bix will be retired. Nobody will ever sit there again. The Chiefs have decided none of us can hold Terez’s notebook.”
Emily Kaplan, ESPN.com: I hate hockey. Sorry, I just do. It’s not a sport I choose to watch or follow. And, really, that says a lot about Kaplan’s work—because when I see her byline (almost always atop an NHL-related piece) I read it. And great scribes pull that trick off, don’t they? They make you care about shit you don’t care about.
From “All Eyes on Auston Matthews” (Oct. 13, 2021): “On weekends, Papi would sit in the locker room of the local rink, Ozzie Ice, armed with a rainbow of jerseys, hoping a visiting team needed a fill-in player. Ozzie Ice had only two sheets of ice: one was a half-sheet; the other was synthetic. The tight space allowed Matthews to master his stickhandling, to figure out how to rip a shot from the smallest of windows or unexpected angles. Matthews grew up playing baseball too, but he always found hockey more exciting.”
Justin Tinsley, The Undefeated: I’m gonna say something, and I hope people understand what I mean: Back in the late 1990s, when I was one of an ocean of white, male writers at Sports Illustrated, the magazine desperately needed scribes like Tinsley. First, because he’s oozing talent. Second, because he has his finger on the pulse of sports and culture and music and art and how they all mesh. I remember when we had Jerome Bettis on the cover, and the editors felt bold enough to use the word “Phat”—five years too late. I remember when we had a cover story on the vanishing white athlete. I remember an enraged Latrell Sprewell, skin tone toyed with. It’s painful to think of … and it’s why men and women like Justin are vital to this business’ growth.
From: “For many in the NBA, continuing Nipsey Hussle’s marathon is a lifelong responsibility” (Aug. 23, 2021): “Hussle didn’t directly inspire the ‘player empowerment era,’ nor were NBA players responsible for Hussle’s social awareness. But they felt camaraderie as they negotiated their paths through a society that for so long wanted to view them solely as entertainers.”
Ian O’Connor, New York Post: It is unfair for one Fox News-loving newspaper to have two sports columnists as tremendous as Mike Vaccaro and Ian. Plus, they’re both gems as human beings. Ian has been dishing out gems for decades, and his 2021 work is as strong as ever. A pro’s pro’s pro.
From: “Kyrie Irving didn’t give the Nets any other choice” (Oct. 12, 2021): “On muscle memory, for old times’ sake, Kyrie Irving put his NBA team in a bind. He forced the Brooklyn Nets to make a brutal decision, and they smartly decided to play offense rather than defense. This is what people around the league have figured out over the years: You have to take the game to Irving. You’ve already lost if you let him take the game to you.”
Chuck Culpepper, Washington Post: Culpepper and I have been around for roughly the same period of time. If you Google my name (not, eh, that I have), you’ll uncover plenty of people with plenty of complaints. Many surely justified. But Chuck? Nada. He’s insanely talented, will travel the globe to chase a story, digs up material nobody else finds and—oh, by the way—he’s as nice a human as you’ll find in journalism.
From: “There are Saturdays that go berserk, and then there was — wait, Alabama did what?” (Oct. 10, 2021): “Each autumn Saturday has its own personality. Some lie around doing a whole lot of not much. Some get frolicsome only here and there or even here or there. Some go haywire enough to crowd the brain. Saturday, Oct. 9, went haywire enough to crowd the brain.”
Howard Beck, Sports Illustrated: Beck is a veteran who doesn’t act like a veteran. What I mean is, there’s no, “Look what I’ve done!” swagger or inane bravado or hungering to go on TV to up his Twitter numbers. Talk to people in the business, he’s as respected as they come. Talk to NBA executives, he’s also as respected as they come. Oh, and his writing talent is otherworldly.
From “He Rose to the Highest Levels of Business and Basketball—but With a Secret” (Oct. 13, 2021): “Guns were rare back then, but Miller had previously acquired a .38 from his girlfriend. So he grabbed the gun, downed a bottle of wine with three friends and went searching for anyone affiliated with the rival gang. He shot the first person they encountered. ‘We were all drunk,’ Miller says softly. ‘I was in a haze. Once it kind of set in, I was like, ‘Oh, shit, what have I done?’ It took years for me to understand the real impact of what I had done.’”
Richard Justice, Texas Monthly: In journalism, there’s always this thing about “writing authoritatively.” Which means, basically, “Write like you know what the fuck you’re talking about.” I’m ignorant to whether Justice is a Dusty Baker expert, or a Texas A&M expert, or a “Joanie Love Chachi” expert—but I don’t think there’s a modern sports scribe who writes with more pronounced authority.
From: “Dusty Baker Gave the Astros Some Dignity. Now Can They Re-sign Him?” (Sept. 22, 2021) “He is part-owner of a successful winery in Northern California. He prides himself on a collard greens recipe honed over decades. He attended the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, saw Jimi Hendrix, and then smoked weed with him in San Francisco a year later. He was on deck for the Atlanta Braves in 1974 when his buddy, Hank Aaron, hit his 715th career home run and broke Babe Ruth’s all-time record. Aaron was inundated with racist threats and hate mail during his pursuit of the home-run mark, and Baker has said that Aaron told fellow Black players to avoid sitting next to him in the dugout in case someone tried to shoot him.”
Mirin Fader, The Ringer: I met Mirin about seven years ago. She was covering preps for the Orange County Register and pretty miserable. Since then, she’s gone from B/R Mag to The Ringer, and she’s published a kick-ass Giannis biography that hit No. 3 on the New York Times list. Why? Yes, talent. But, first and foremost, an in-the-desert-for-a-month thirst to be extraordinary.
From: “There’s No Prospect Like Evan Mobley” (July 28, 2021): “He has the agility and ballhandling skills of a point guard and the finesse and refined post moves of a center. One who can use his length and quickness to attack offensively from the top, the wing, or the interior. One with the court vision and high basketball IQ to fire pinpoint passes from anywhere. And one agile enough to defend guards, switch on screens, protect the paint, and swat shots. He doesn’t just move differently—he thinks differently.”
Mac Engel, Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Great columnists aren’t afraid to go after the people they cover. In fact, they view it as a duty. That doesn’t mean you become Skip Bayless and take shots for the sake of taking shots. But when, say, the Texas Rangers suck, and you’re the local columnist, you don’t hide it. You don’t protect the team. You aim, you fire, you hit. Mac has been firing for years. He pretty much always hits.
From: After so much losing, how anyone trusts Texas Rangers brass is a mystery (Oct. 8, 2021): “Both JD and CY said Wednesday they have been given approval by ownership to pursue top free agents. Now this is the type of statement that not only requires ‘more research,’ but a ‘don’t trust and verify’ along with a shot of tequila and a chaser of moonshine.”
James Edwards III, The Athletic: Serving as the Detroit Pistons’ beat writer is an eternity of runny eggs for breakfast. Yet Edwards somehow brings zest, oomph, passion and smarts to a painfully tough gig.
From: “Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 pick, is the new face of the Detroit Pistons” (July 29, 2021): “Cunningham’s ceiling is like that of a church. It rises and never seems to stop. The NBA covets 6-foot-8 ballhandlers who can initiate the offense or play off the ball. The NBA covets 3-point shooting, which Cunningham showcased plenty of during his lone season at Oklahoma State. He can defend. The cherry on top, as general manager Troy Weaver learned when he turned over every stone during the process, is that Cunningham is a great young man with a good head on his shoulders.”
Drew Magary, Defector: Drew’s writing has always fascinated me. Read quickly, you think, “That was genuinely funny/heartwarming/fascinating.” But if you take the time to study his word choices, his turns of phrases, his structuring—the guy is genius. I actually don’t say that lightly. Every word feels precisely placed. Every sentence lines up perfectly for the one that advanced it. Drew may well respond with, “Um, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” But … I’m pretty sure I’m right.
From: “Why Your Team Sucks 2021: Cleveland Browns” (Sept. 1, 2021): “Little engine that could Baker Mayfield, who’s due for a fat contract extension but still can’t throw for 300 yards in a game to save his life. It’s extremely disorienting to watch the otherwise charming Mayfield get lapped by erratic racist shotgun Josh Allen in the span of 12 tidy months, but then again why should anything surprise me about this team’s shortcomings (pun intended) at the most vital position on the field?”
Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Wanna know the sign of a sports chronicler worth reading? You’ve heard the outcome of a game and still can’t wait to get your mitts on the article breaking it down. That, to me, is Goold’s money spot. Probably every time I’ve sat to peruse his work, I knew whether the Cards won or lost. It mattered not. The words grabbed me.
From “'The hurt is what motivates you': His career spent overcoming adversity, Cardinals Reyes tested again by walk-off loss” (Oct. 10, 2021): “His hand raised, his steps light, Chris Taylor had not yet rounded first base when Alex Reyes headed for home. The final pitch of the Cardinals’ 2021 season — a slider — left Reyes’ fingertips, found Taylor’s bat, and landed somewhere out there in the Dodger Stadium seats. Few, if any, Cardinals bothered to watch where it landed. They took off for the dugout, knowing what Taylor’s home run meant before the scoreboard reported it, 3-1. In one swing, the game, the playoffs, the season was over for the Cardinals. On his way to the offseason after his first full season in the majors, Reyes walked into an embrace. And then another. Maybe one more, to be sure.”
Jerry Brewer, Washington Post: Life is unfair. The Washington Post has Jenkins, Buckner and Brewer as sports columnists. That reminds me of the Mets introducing the world to Paul Wilson, Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher—only, eh, the Post trio won’t flame out. Brewer is terrific. He can write about any subject on the planet and show you something you didn’t know. I’ve laughed reading his columns. I’ve teared up reading his columns. I’ve never yawned reading his columns.
From: “The Kentucky Derby of my childhood was a fantasy. Now it feels raw, and real” (May 1, 2021): “I am 12 and wonder-struck, as usual. It smells like barbecue and sounds like church folk letting loose, playful and loud and skirting the line of inappropriate speech. It looks polychromatic and fancy, so fancy for a house soiree, an assortment of bright clothing that seems exotic but comfortable, stylish but not too formal. It feels right, unless I’m remembering it wrong.”
Tyler R. Tynes, GQ: I first knew of Tynes during his time at SB Nation, when he penned a fabulous piece on race and politics and America that I included (as guest editor) in The Best American Sports Writing. Since then, he’s moved on to GQ to write the sorta old-school I-am-here-with-a-celebrity-and-he’s-eating-mushy-oatmeal fly-on-the-wall profiles that I secretly (well, not-so-secretly) love. Tynes’ gift is embedding; getting deep into a scene and playing around with it. That is one helluva gift to have.
From: “Generation LaMelo” (Aug. 17, 2021): “I hear LaMelo Ball before I see him. ‘Sheeeeeeeeeeeesh!’ he exclaims when entering a room, his electric, beaming smile bouncing off the walls. ‘Sheeeeeeeeeeeesh!’ he moans on the Charlotte Hornets' practice court after an assistant coach scratches him across the eye. ‘Sheeeeeeeeeeeesh!’ he whistles when I play Babyface Ray's recent banger, ‘Real N-ggas Don't Rap,’ for him. The high-pitched screech is American vernacular at its wackiest, a sensational slang used all over TikTok to signify excitement and appreciation. But for LaMelo it's almost like punctuation.”
Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times: I always knew Plaschke was excellent. But moving to Southern California back in 2014 opened my eyes to one of the finest columnists in the Times’ storied history. The guy never takes an assignment off.
From: “Dodgers singing Bauer was epic mistake” (Sept. 12, 2021): “He won’t pitch again this season, but the shame he showered upon his franchise will endure forever. He once took the mound with limitless promise yet now will walk off in legendary disgrace. Trevor Bauer is officially the biggest embarrassment in Los Angeles Dodgers history.”
C. Trent Rosecrans, The Athletic: There’s nothing better than an A+ writer covering a C+ franchise. Why? Because it’s sorta easy (well, easier) to write about the Yankees. Try writing about the (yawn) Cincinnati Reds. But Rosecrans does it exceptionally well. His writing is more knuckler than heater—different approaches, unexpected dips. It’s what makes his work so terrific.
From: “‘Focus on today’: Reds’ Nick Senzel no longer asking ‘why’ as he battles to reach his potential” (July 23, 2021): “Why? Everywhere he has turned since being taken with the second pick in the 2016 draft, there’s been a reason to ask why. Why him? Why now? Why not? It’s a haunting question, one we all face daily in matters big and small. That nagging, insistent ‘why.’ Senzel, 26, has decided to just stop asking that question.”
Jenny Vrentas, Sports Illustrated: I remember when Peter King left Sports Illustrated, and it was like, “Um … what now?” But one thing media teaches those who stick around: No one is irreplaceable. I’m not saying Jenny is (or isn’t) Peter—but she’s a longtime talent who can report the absolute shit out of a story.
From: “A Massage Therapist on Her Session With Deshaun Watson” (March 29, 2021): “She met Watson when he arrived at her rented office space in the fall of 2019. His appointment, originally for a 90-minute massage, was booked through another massage therapist in the area. Mary had a contract with the other therapist, who would refer clients to Mary, take a fee and then pay Mary for the session. This other therapist had previously referred several other clients to Mary, without any issues, so she trusted her. Mary didn’t know the client would be Watson until about 15 minutes before the appointment.”
Jason Gay, Wall Street Journal: There are few things that irk me quite like young writers (in particular, collegiate writers) saying something like, “I’m really good at writing funny.” Why? Because writing funny (like, really, truly, uniquely funny) is insanely hard. I suck at it. A dog walks into a bar. Ouch! (See?). But Jason Gay is classic. He gets tone, pacing, spacing, punch, timing. He somehow understands all the devices that elude me (and surely many others in the biz).
From “Tom Brady vs. Bill Belichick: Tampa Takes the NFL Psychodrama of the Century” (Oct. 4, 2021): “A brief list of events that did not happen in Sunday night’s epochal Estrangement Bowl between Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots and Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Frogs and porcupines did not fall from the sky. The moon did not turn a bright shade of devil red. A rising tide did not deliver a shiver of sharks, the end zones did not boil with fire, and Brady and Belichick did not settle their allegedly simmering differences with a heated leg-wrestling match at midfield.”
Dave Zirin, The Nation: Back, oh, a decade and a half ago, Dave wrote a fantastic book, “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports.” And while I remember loving the innards, what sticks most is a cover blurb from Robert Lipsyte: “Dave Zirin is the best young sportswriter in America.” I recall thinking how limited that was. Like, what happens after Dave Zirin turns 40? Or 45? Or, shit, 50? Well Dave and I are about the same age, and I’d argue (passionately) that he’s one of the best sportswriters in America—birth year be damned.
From: “Unvaxxed Quarterback Carson Wentz Wants Your Trust” (Sept. 8, 2021): “‘Trust me.’ That’s what 28-year-old Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz kept saying, over and over, in his press conference last week. ‘Trust me.’ He said it so often, one wondered if there was a used car for sale somewhere behind the podium.”
Stephanie Apstein, Sports Illustrated: Sometimes, when you rave about a person’s improvement, it sounds condescending. It can suggest that (in this case) a writer sucked, and now they’re better than sucky. So I tread cautiously when I argue that, in my time as a journalist, few writers have taken as big a leap as Apstein. I always enjoyed reading her stuff. Always. But one day she worked extra with Walt Hriniak—and now she’s Tony Gwynn (aka: a 15-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer).
From “‘I Haven’t Looked Back Once’: Nolan Arenado Returns to Coors Field Happy to Be Away” (July 1, 2021): “Now, as he returns Thursday to Coors Field for the first time since he left, he is thinking about scoring a run there, maybe because he has homered, maybe because one of his new teammates has driven him in. He will round third and cross home plate. He will high-five whoever is nearby. To his left will be the Rockies’ dugout. He will turn right.”
Tyler Dunne, Substack: Dunne and I were B/R Mag colleagues, and—being honest—I knew little of him before I landed there. Name meant nothing, work meant nothing. Then I started reading his material and … damn. The man is so good. There are folks who are born to be journalists, and Dunne is one of them. Also, not for nothing, Tyler knows how to use connections; to build a narrative.
From “Inside Jerry's World, Part I: A twisted system” (Sept. 8, 2021): “One source remembers Garrett being ‘completely worn out’ from the conversations. A look of total exhaustion was written across his face. Of course, Garrett and Jones knew each other for 20 years before the former QB even became the head man. His Dad was a Cowboys scout. Thus, Garrett developed a knack for ever-so delicately… ever-so resiliently… nudging Jones to a decision he knew was best for the Cowboys.”
John Blanchette, The Spokesman-Review: If you dig through the Blanchette archives, you’ll find a newspaper columnist at a mid-sized outpost who hits operatic notes week after week. It’s one of my favorite genres of journalists. You’re not becoming uber famous. The networks aren’t calling. You write because you love to write, and you aspire to bring exposure to your community’s athletes.
From: “Even if it was USC, latest collapse only confirms Washington State’s current trajectory is off target” (Sept. 18, 2021): “USC interim head coach Donte Williams watched Saturday as the Trojans picked up their fragile psyches after being pounded for six quarters and blew apart the Cougars – speaking of fragile – with 45 straight points. And where have we seen this before? Pick almost any week.”
David Roth, Defector: I hope people are reading the ol’ Defector (land of former Deadspin folk who started a new outfit), because Roth has been bringing it for many a year. Like Magary, his colleague, Roth is enviously (aka: I’m envious of the ability) precise and crisp with language. I rarely read his work and think, “That was a blown 10 minutes.”
From: “This Is What Happens When One Of Baseball’s Best Prospects Is Served A Meatball By A Position Player” (Aug. 20, 2021): “Julio Rodriguez is one of the very best prospects in baseball, and has been since he arrived in the United States as an 18-year-old in 2019. He spent most of this season absolutely beating the pants off opposing pitching at High-A, a league in which he was nearly three years younger than the average player. When it became clear that he was too good for that level the Mariners promoted him, and Rodriguez has since been only slightly less rude to pitchers at Double-A Arkansas, in a league he is just a shade more than four years younger than the competition on balance.”
James Wagner, New York Times: Kepner and Wagner is like Templeton and Wiggins. And, yeah, I only used that reference because I’m all about the mid-1980s Padres. But while the Times’ sports section is starting to disappoint me (they rarely cover New York teams these days), the two-headed baseball monster is magic. Wagner comes up with an endless supply of unique approaches to storytelling. Which is 75 percent of the battle.
From: “Freddie Freeman Thinks You’re Doing a Great Job” (Oct. 7, 2021): “Freddie Freeman, the longtime Atlanta star and the reigning winner of the National League Most Valuable Player Award, wants you to have a good time when you visit his home. Even if you’re on the other side, he wants you to feel welcome. He may compliment you. He may make you laugh. He may lend a supportive ear or offer a few suggestions. But you can’t kick off your shoes and put your feet up because, of course, this isn’t his actual house. It’s first base, his much-visited home on the field for the past 11 major league seasons.”
Colton Pouncy, The Athletic: Back when I was coming up I would write to “The Low End Theory,” A Tribe Called Quest’s best album (don’t argue this one with me). I believed listening to hip-hop added bounce to my sentences; that somehow the flow of a song would translate to the keyboard. If you tell me Pouncy (The Athletic’s Michigan State beat guy) writes to music, I’ll 100-percent believe it. His stuff is so insanely bouncy. Relaxed, comfortable, peppy. I love it.
From: “‘Somebody’s gonna step up’: Michigan State remains in search of its alpha, but Tom Izzo likes his options” (Sept. 15, 2021): “Tom Izzo foreshadowed this, about seven months ago. It was February, and Izzo’s MSU program found itself in rare territory — on the outside looking in. Expected growth from key players never arrived. A team comprised of decent parts just couldn’t quite fit together. Michigan State was on the verge of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the Spice Girls’ ‘Wannabe’ topped the Billboard Hot 100. Changes were on the horizon. And Izzo knew it.”
P.J. Brown, Arizona Daily Star: Throughout my life, I’ve watched with tremendous dismay as women’s sports have been assigned to the intern, or the misplaced (aka: not so highly regarded) writer. It still happens, though not nearly as often. In Brown, fans of Arizona women’s basketball are gifted with a dazzling wordsmith who genuinely loves the assignments.
From: “Return from injured reserve means more time to cover, care about Cats” (Jan. 31, 2019): “Wednesday was a day I will always remember. It is the day I took my first steps on my right foot in nearly three months. Those steps, aided by a cane, meant mobility, independence — and something else, too. I’ll return to the Arizona women’s basketball beat this week, something I wasn’t sure was possible this season. I was involved in a terrible car crash in October.”
Katie Baker, The Ringer: I’ve known Baker’s work for many a moon—from her time at Grantland (RIP) up through the current Ringer era. And she writes with an ease and comfort that just seems natural. I feel like, were we writing side by side, Katie would look at me and say, “Buddy, I finished three hours ago and now I’m gonna eat a banana split and watch some TV. Catch you later …”
From “The Browns Place a Low-Risk, High-Reward Bet on Jadeveon Clowney” (Aug. 26, 2021): “Back in 2017, when Garrett arrived in Cleveland, he was already seen as a generational star, a physically wondrous talent who had led the SEC in sacks as a Texas A&M sophomore and who jumped higher than any other defensive lineman at the pre-draft combine. A Sports Illustrated piece about him in 2015 included a kingly anecdote about Garrett blocking a kick while in high school ‘at the exact moment’ that Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin landed next to the field in a conveyance known as ‘the Swagcopter’ to watch the five-star recruit play. One mock draft assessment described Garrett as ‘a freak: taller than Julio Jones, heavier than Rob Gronkowski, faster than Jarvis Landry.’ Not everything involving Garrett has gone smoothly, however.”
Mark Craig, Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “Knock knock.” Who’s there? Writer. Writer who? “Writer who can drop a Fred Cox reference in a 2021 Minnesota Vikings story.” There is much to be said for cultivating young talent, especially in these times of dwindling budgets. But, man, do I love sports writers who are well versed in the history of the games they cover. Craig is simulatenously knowledgable and—as a chronicler—blessedly fabulous.
From: “As Vikings showed us again, winning ugly in the NFL is still a thing” (Oct. 11, 2021): “Winning ugly in the NFL has gotten a lot prettier and far less appreciated in the NFL the last 50 years. On Nov. 14, 1971, Vikings coach Bud Grant had this to say after his team beat a bad Packers squad in perhaps the ugliest game in 61 seasons of Vikings football: ‘We made a lot of big plays. They didn't make any.’ The Vikings won 3-0 on a windy, 45-degree day at Met Stadium.”
Sean Gregory, Time Magazine: Here’s the problem with Sean: He writes for a magazine in an era of not magazines. So maybe you don’t know the name if you’re under, oh, 35. Or, maybe good fortune is on your side and you’re devoted to Sean’s work—which has been tremendous for the past two decades.
From: “The NFL Will Survive Jon Gruden's Bigotry. But It Must Force Change” (Oct. 13, 2021): “Maybe some good can rise from this mess. Around 60% of NFL players are Black, but there are only three Black NFL coaches. Gruden has crudely reminded America about the NFL’s race problems. According to the NFL’s 2020 ‘Racial and Gender Report Card’ from the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, teams receive failing grades for their hiring of women as team presidents and senior administrators. Perhaps owners and executives will be more cognizant of these issues when they make hiring decisions.”
Michael Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated: The best compliment I can give a peer: I was a scrub at Sports Illustrated back in the mid-1990s, checking facts for all-time greats like Gary Smith and William Nack and Frank Deford and Rick Reilly and Richard Hoffer and Michael Farber. True artists of the trade. Michael Rosenberg would have fit in perfectly.
From: “This is Not how Japan Envisioned Karate’s Moment at the Olympics” (Aug. 6, 2021): “In a small, famed, mostly empty arena here, an Olympic sport came and went. Karate was never an Olympic sport before. It is not scheduled to be an Olympic sport again. But Japan wanted it, and so here it was.”
Will Leitch, New York Magazine: So way back in the day Leitch was the founder of Deadspin, and he deserves much credit for everything we see before us, in terms of writers no longer simply waiting for a big mainstream entity to swoop them up. Lost in that, however, is a cool truth: Leitch has always been a top-shelf sports writer.
From: “Javy Baez Should Have Remembered Why Fans Boo” (Aug. 31, 2021): “If there is one public utility that sports provide — and you could reasonably argue they don’t offer any at all — it’s that they allow human beings to exorcise unacceptable, or at least unhealthy, emotions in an essentially harmless way. On a day-to-day basis, I’m a relatively docile, friendly, milquetoast sort of fellow. But before a St. Louis Cardinals playoff game, I’m a little like Tom Hardy at the beginning of Bronson — just a caged animal ready to lash out at anything in sight. I’d argue that this is what sports are primarily for: to give you an excuse to get out all the unwieldy emotions you’re not generally allowed to display in normal, polite society.”
Nekias Duncan, Basketball News: There are few things in modern sports media that bother me more than the laziness of NBA coverage. These days, so much of it boils down to “unnamed sources say” and “a friend of a friend’s cousin believes …” It’s exhausting, it’s sad, it’s nonsense. Duncan isn’t that guy. He’s an riveting writer who brings an authentic sense of understanding to the professional game.
From: “Kyle Lowry makes life easier for Miami in preseason Heat debut” (Oct. 7, 2021): “For young players, it may be a flash of a skill set. For veterans, particularly ones on new teams, you'll get the outline of what they're bringing to their new homes. So no, you probably shouldn't start looking at Miami flight and hotel prices in preparation for a title parade based on the Heat's 125-99 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Monday night. (Look at those prices for other reasons that won't be detailed here. *Generic smile emoji*) If there's a takeaway from the Heat side, however, it's that Kyle Lowry will absolutely change how the Heat do things — on both ends of the floor.”
Kelly Dwyer, Substack: According to Dwyer’s bio, a sportswriter named Eric Freeman said that Kelly “basically invented the dominant mode of internet basketball writing.” I don’t know what that means, and whether it’s true or false. I will say this: Dwyer’s Substack is addictive. I wish more people covered the NBA (hell, sports in general) with this merging of humor and earnestness. A fantastic find.
From: “A draft like no other” (July 30, 2021): “This was, hopefully, a rare NBA draft. The pandemic changed everything, and extracting value from the stats scribbled by mask-wearing scorers on an empty sideline seems a bit spurious. Demanding form and function from a teenager after a single season of college ball is pushing it in most instances. After these 17 months, absurd. I just like them as friends, so far, all smiling and full of grace and humility and also that Turkish kid in the polyester denied each of Adam Silver’s attempts at an orthodox greeting.”
Juliet Macur, New York Times: A former Columbia University rower, Macur is the consummate pro. She can write about scandal and have you riveted. She can write about a gymnast heading to college and have you riveted, too. There’s something to be said for veteran writers who have worked at multiple newspapers and exude comfort, confidence, professionalism, touch in their writing. That’s Macur.
From: “Sunisa Lee’s Next Big Move After the Olympics: College” (July 30, 2021: “Lee, 18, can’t wait to be just another college freshman, meeting new friends, going to classes and living in a dorm with other students who may or may not recognize that she is a newly minted Olympic gold medalist. She will most likely be the only incoming student with her own day named after her: Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota declared Friday ‘Sunisa Lee Day.’”
Michael Rothstein, ESPN.com: Rothstein is best known as an NFL writer—he covered the Detroit Lions for a bunch of years, now is on the Atlanta Falcons beat. And he’s sensational at it. But in another era, when boxing is king and there’s always a Leonard, a Hagler, a Holmes, a Tyson, a Duran to cover, Rothstein is all-in on pugilism. And I’m guessing that would thrill him. Because he should be this era’s Pat Putnam.
From: “'He takes it away from you mentally, physically -- quickly': What it's like to fight heavyweight champ Tyson Fury” (Oct. 6, 2021): “Three days before the fight, Power and his coaches jumped on a plane to England. ‘We just went in there,’ Power said. ‘Knowing he was a giant.’ There's really no other boxer like Tyson Fury. He has a combination of size, speed and skill, plus reach, instincts and talent. He also has the mouth and the gift of being able to cut a promo. Add it all together and it's next to impossible to deal with.”
Brittany Ghiroli, The Athletic: I’ve been a Ghiroli fan for a good while now, dating back to her MLB.com days on the (yuck) Orioles beat. She just thinks in a different way than most writers I know, and the resulting product is a cool, unique viewpoint into (the oft-repetitive) world of Major League Baseball.
From: “Yadier Molina will get his farewell tour with the Cardinals next season. He’s earned every bit of it” (Sept. 10, 2021): “Molina is running in humid triple-digit weather not to punish himself, but to continue to separate himself. It’s not just about natural talent, but also what you do with it, how long you can squeeze every last drop of it out, like a toothpaste tube you can’t bear to throw away. After all these years, Molina is still putting down fingers, pushing through nightly beatings and pestering manager Mike Shildt to get into spring training games.”
Zak Keefer, The Athletic: There are few things in this world that interest me less than the Indianapolis Colts. Boring team, boring quarterback, boring uniforms, boring stadium. But somehow, Keefer’s Athletic coverage of the franchise has become appointment reading. That’s an art.
From: “‘This s— sucks’: Colts sound off after 0-3 start shows exactly where they are” (Sept. 26, 2021): “Clad in a crisp light blue suit, the quarterback who couldn’t walk five days ago shuffled his way to the podium, one tender step at a time, and spoke of how stressful the past 48 hours had been. Treatment. Practice. Prayer. Repeat. Even Carson Wentz didn’t know if he was starting for sure until late Sunday morning, and that was after a workout on the field at Nissan Stadium didn’t leave his wobbly ankles in any more pain than they were already in.”
Chris Herring, Sports Illustrated: First a genuinely decent guy who wears his journalism passion on his lapel. Second, a shrewd, sharp wordsmith whose knowledge of the NBA matches his talent for explaining it.
From: “T.J. McConnell Is Here to Stay” (April 22, 2021): “In theory, Pacers point guard T.J. McConnell has very little in common with panthers, lions or tigers. Where big cats are obligate carnivores, who only digest meat, McConnell’s incorporated vegan elements into his diet since reaching the NBA. Where big cats are physically imposing, McConnell—at 6' 1", with some of the smallest hands and one of the smaller wingspans in recent NBA memory—is not.”
Joseph Goodman, Al.com: Alabama is not my favorite state. It actually might be my least-favorite state. Well, second-to-least favorite (here’s looking at you, Florida!). But the one thing its people do have is a crazed-beyond-crazed passion for college football. At this moment, it’d be hard to find someone who writes more eloquently about the sport than Goodman. Perhaps Alabama has something (besides high COVID rates) going for it.
From: “Lane Kiffin is a five-star fox in a clown suit” (Sept. 29, 2021): “If Saban is the five-star general of college football, then Kiffin, and I say this with love, is a five-star fox in a clown suit. Kiffin wasn’t at Tennessee long enough for us to fully appreciate his needling of Urban Meyer, but Kiffin on Saban is one of the best sideshows in sports.”
Brooks Kubena, Houston Chronicle: Kubena covers the Texans. It’s like covering yourself in oil, then walking into the nearest forest fire. But he does it particularly well, and his game stories are lively, informative, action-packed. You read his work, you feel like you’re there.
From: “After a fast start and big plays, Texans offense stalls in loss to Patriots” (Oct. 10, 2021): “Nothing about a flea-flicker signaled a collapse. There was only surprise. Surprise that Mark Ingram flipped a handoff back to rookie quarterback Davis Mills. Surprise that Mills threw a 37-yard touchdown to a wide-open Chris Conley. Surprise that the Texans were beating the Patriots 22-9 in the third quarter of a game in which they entered an eight-point underdog.”
Mike Hlas, Cedar Rapids Gazette: Here’s a challenge: Try teaching a young journalist to write breezily. Explain it, break it down, then watch what they produce. It’s exasperatingly difficult. Well, Hlas—sports columnist and Iowa men’s basketball beat writer—is breeziness personified, and in all the best ways.
From: “Steve Fish and his Marion baseball family land the big one” (July 31, 2021): “On the very last day the Marion Indians were called the Marion Indians in anything, they were called state baseball champions for the very first day and were partying on the field and in the grandstand. ‘Starting tomorrow we’re the Wolves,’ Fish said. ‘This was our last time representing the Marion Indians. Right, wrong or indifferent where you are with the change — I’m neutral — this has been kind of special to be the end of the Indians and do it with a state championship. I think that’s fitting.’ It was fitting that Fish, an Iowa High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee five years ago, got to watch his players hold a state-title trophy.”
Nathan Fenno, Los Angeles Times: Few things in this business are better than an investigative sleuth who is equally adept at writing with style. That’s Fenno, a former Washington Times columnist who jumped to SoCal seven years ago and immediately brought extra depth to the sports section.
From: “Qualifying greatness: What makes Katie Ledecky the world’s most dominant swimmer?” (July 15, 2021): “The girl couldn’t make it across the pool. Midway through the 25-meter journeys at the Palisades Swim and Tennis Club in Cabin John, Md., she’s grab a lane line and catch her break like so many other 6-year-olds figuring out how to swim. Then the windmilling to the other side resumed. She had a smile that seemed bigger than her diminutive frame, swim cap pulled over her eats and enthusiastic post-race analyses captured on home movies. Eighteen years later, Katie Ledecky is the world’s most dominant freestyle swimmer.”
Amie Just, NOLA News: The past decade has not been kind to print media in New Orleans. It just hasn’t. The newspaper of record pretty much dissolved into mud, reporters came and went. On and on. So it sparks insane levels of joy to see someone as strong as Amie Just serving the community with Saints coverage this insightful and crisp.
From: “With Hail Mary, clutch punts and more, Saints leave Washington with weird and wild win” (Oct 10. 2021): “The New Orleans Saints had just scored on a Hail Mary, and Sean Payton’s mind flashed back to a sentiment from Sugarland frontwoman Jennifer Nettles. Let him explain. Rewind to 2006. Saints-Falcons in Atlanta. Terrance Copper reeled in a Drew Brees Hail Mary ahead of halftime, and Sugarland — a relatively new country band with a few songs cracking the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot Country 100 — came on to play a short set for the halftime entertainment at the Georgia Dome. As Payton recalled after New Orleans beat the Washington Football Team, 33-22, ‘She said, ‘You want to talk about a tough crowd? When you come out after someone completes a Hail Mary against your team, and then ‘Please welcome Sugarland.’”
Jason Whitlock, BlazeTV: Just kidding. The list is done.
The Five with … Kelly Swanson
So through the years I’ve worked with dozens of publicists, but befriended precious few. The rare exception is Kelly Swanson of Swanson Communications.
Back in the day Kelly used to call us at SI and pitch ideas. Only, she wasn’t like the others trying to sell us on bullshit. It was weird, actually. If Kelly had bullshit to sell, she’d say, “Look, this is sorta bullshit, but …”. And it was impactful, because you knew when Kelly had something legit, it was actually legit.
Anyhow, she’s gone on to a huge career in boxing PR, but remains a great friend and colleague. So I asked Kelly to offer her five best tips to public relations folk. You can follow her on Twitter here.
Like Kelly, this is gold …
1. Don't pitch a story when there is no real story: There is a lot of competition in the media, so what you must have in your pitch is a compelling angle or newsworthy consideration. This is a high bar. Think of this as “that extra something” or a viewpoint others may have missed that makes your angle worth a reporter's time. Sure, your client made it in to professional sports and has been practicing since age 4. You think this is a great angle to pursue. But is it? No—not compelling or unique. So keep on digging until you come out of a ditch with a special aspect for a story. I call it the “perfect story wishing well.” I have mined deep to find aspects of my clients’ lives and careers. The obvious story can work, but when you attach a compelling human interest to it, you’ve got the gold news gatekeepers want to cover.
2. Don't ever feel that your client is too big or too famous to pitch: I have had many A1 stories that were generated by pitching an angle about my client that was new, fresh and different—even to others who thought there was little left to tell or know about that individual. If you have nothing left or can’t find another angle, you have no shot at A1, big headlines or a future with your client because your job will be done. Your purpose in your professional life is to develop new angles for your client or you shouldn’t be representing them.
3. Don’t befriend the client to the detriment of the relationship: Sometimes you might be invited to tag along after hours, assist with family emergencies or smooth things over with one of their chums. The temptation heightens as the star's aura widens, but stay in your lane. Say “Thanks, but no thanks.” If you keep your job in the confines of its capacity, you will live to see another day, night or possibly years with your clients. You don’t need your clients to like you. If they do, fine. But what you really want is for them to respect you. Remember: If you want autographs, buy a ticket. If you want to be perceived as a professional, carry yourself like one.
4. Push back when you know your client is making a bad choice about media relations or interviews: It's your job to remind them what they are there for, who their audience is and why they should participate: for the greater good of their career. If you don't try to point out the pitfalls, you are failing your client. The stars have lots of "yes" people already. It never served me well to become one of them.
5. Don't compromise your role out of fear: I had a client who was mad at me for months during a huge national promotion because I wasn't backing down from something I knew was the right thing for him to do. I didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear, I told him what I thought he needed to hear. Throughout the whole promotion he spoke nary a word to me. However, when the event was done, he turned to me and said “Thank you.” He remains my client today.
Bonus Nugget: Never make yourself part of the story: Everyone has an ego and occasionally wants to be out front with famous clients. But if you want to keep your clients, don’t be the one jumping in front of the cameras. Your job is to put your clients in front of the cameras, not you! Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but most of the time, please just stay out of the shot.
Yet another story of one of my myriad career fuckups …
Back in 1995, while I was still a young scribe in the Living Dept for The (Nashville) Tennessean, I pitched the story of Dreaming in English, a local rock band that was generating quite a bit of buzz. The idea was to hang with the guys for a week—see what their lives were like; how it was to be young and struggling in a country-dominany town; what sort of musical journey the five members were on.
And it was, without question, great fun. The band was led by two guys: A guitarist, Roger Nichols, who was funny and gregarious; and a singer, Ty Brooks, who very much reminded me of an on-the-rise Phillip Bailey. I was young and impressionable and thrilled to be hearing music for free. So the piece was certainly far from hard-hitting.
Anyhow, after repeatedly raving to my editor, Gloria Ballard, how exciting the story would be, I was told it would run as the section front on an upcoming Sunday, and that I could devote, oh, 3,000 words to the project. Man, did I ever work my ass off on this one. I kept bugging the members for more and more info; attended far more performances than need be; looked for all angles and thoughts and meanings into the music of Dreaming in English.
At long last, the piece ran. Exciting day! I actually drove to the nearest convenience store and paid for a copy. Layout—great! Headline—great!
“Hey Jeff, it’s Roger Nichols.”
“Just wanted to thank for you the story. It’s terrific, and we’re all thrilled.”
“I’m so happy.”
“There’s just one thing, but, really, it’s not a big deal.”
“Uh … OK.”
“Really, it’s not a big deal at all. I don’t even know if it’s worth mentioning.”
“Roger, I can handle it.”
“Well,” he said, “Ty’s name is Ty Banks.”
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Andy Tallman, news reporter for the Montana Kaimin, the University of Montana’s student newspaper. Last week Tallman broke the story about a tenured University of Montana computer science professor, Rob Smith, who—to quote Tallman—“maintained a blog in which he has disparaged women, Muslims and the LGBTQ+ community. On the blog, he urges men of all ages to date women close to age 18, because they peak at 16 then quickly ‘lose value.’”
Wrote Smith in one of his, eh, interesting posts: “Your physical attractiveness is your most valuable asset in finding a husband. Counsel to young people about spouse selection.”
After Tallman’s piece broke, Smith was placed on paid leave.
Tallman is on Twitter here. Bravo, kid …
Random journalism musings for the week …
• Musing 1: If you’re reading this genre of Substack, odds are strong that by now you’ve heard about the whole Adam Schefter thing (if you haven’t, Chad Finn’s Boston Globe piece is excellent). To be blunt: Showing a subject a story before it’s published in any form (and especially to receive validation/approval) is amateur-hour bullshit. Schefter has been around, and he knows better.
And yet … his statement (“Fair questions are being asked about my reporting approach on an NFL Lockout story from 10 years ago. Just to clarify, it's common practice to verify facts of a story with sources before you publish in order to be as accurate as possible. In this case, I took the rare step of sending the full story in advance because of the complex nature of the collective bargaining talks. It was a step too far and, looking back, I shouldn't have done it. The criticism being levied is fair. With that said, I want to make this perfectly clear: in no way did I, or would I, cede editorial control or hand over final say about a story to anyone, ever.”) tells the story of a once-legitimate reporter who likely fell in love with the backslaps, the access, the nods, the winks, the approval, the “Hey, you’re Adam!” airport recognition. Don’t be mistaken—that stuff is addictive.
If we in the media demand accountability from the men and women we cover, we need to hold ourselves to high standards as well.
• Musing 2: According to Khristina Williams, who reports on the WNBA for Girls Talk Sports TV, in the aftermath of Sunday night’s title-clincling victory by the Chicago Sky, no Phoenix Mercury players (including captain Diana Taurasi) made themselves available to the media. Jackie Powell of Bleacher Report dropped this via Twitter …
Too often we place burdens on women athletes that we don’t apply to men. We ask questions that cross the line of ridiculous. We have—over time—belittled, mocked, dismissed. But, in this case, all the criticisms are fair. You win a game, you talk. You lose a game, you talk. Not merely because it’s the right thing. Not merely because it’s accountable. You talk because young people are watching, and learning how to handle advertisty is an acquired art.
Falling short sucks.
Falling short after falling short sucks even more.
• Musing 3: After four years, my run as the advisor to The Panther, Chapman University’s student newspaper, has come to a close. It was time—I was beaten down and a tad indifferent. Student journalists deserve more.
What I’d like to stress is—if you’re a member of the media and there’s a local student publication in need of guidance—go for it. Seriously, do it ASAP. The buzz is high. Observing (and assisting with) growth is wonderful. For example, four years ago a skinny freshman named Luca Evans approached me about his journalism goals. He was raw and fragile and quiet. Today, as a senior, he’s stringing regularly for the Los Angeles Times. That makes it all worthwhile.
• Musing 4: “When you’re in a battle for facts, journalism is activism.”
What an absolutely mind-blowing thought from Maria Ressa, the Filipino journalist and winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. Back nine years ago, Ressa co-founded Rappler, a news website devoted to exposing and exploring Rodrigo Duterte’s “controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign” in the Philippines. And while her sentiment is not one taught in many (if any) journalism programs, it should be.
These days, hard-right political figures have settled upon a tactic of damning the media, attacking the media, lying to the media … then accusing the media of (wait for it) lying. Hell, just look at Donald Trump’s half-decade run of mistruth. So if journalists are presenting facts, and aspiring authoritarians are presenting fiction, we are activists.
• Musing 5: No, he really wouldn’t be …
Quote of the week …
“The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30 second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance”
— Carl Sagan