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. . . And the Folks Who Bring It to You : POND SCUM AND VULTURES; By Gene Wojciechowski (Macmillan: $17.95; 256 pp.)

December 30, 1990|John Schulian | Schulian is supervising producer of NBC's "Midnight Caller." He was previously a syndicated sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Philadelphia Daily News. and

If a title was ever odds-on to make potential readers retreat to their TV sets, this book has it. Those brave enough to forge ahead will discover that pond scum and vultures are but two of the sobriquets applied to sportswriters by their less-than-admiring subjects.

No doubt author Gene Wojciechowski, who has been called both while chronicling the games people play, was aiming for irony, but what he has achieved is something far different. At best, he has strung together a collection of mildly amusing anecdotes. At worst, he has unwittingly written an indictment of a profession that already has the same public image as dognaping.

The cold, hard truth is that the people who read the nation's sports pages care only about what is in them, not who puts it there. On those rare occasions when they do stop to think about sportswriters, they picture overweight, self-important freeloaders brimming with contempt for athletes who are richer, younger and better-looking than they are.

Just about the only sportswriters who have risen above this sorry stereotype in recent memory are Jim Murray and the late Red Smith, both of them quoted, honored and admired. But they are rightly famous for their prose, and prose, alas, is something Wojciechowski and his subjects treat as if it were contagious.

They are too busy whining about deadlines and workloads, bumpy flights and outrageous room-service bills, all while remaining blissfully oblivious to the fact that they haven't cornered the market on such indignities. They do, however, seem to be leading the nation in abuse suffered on the job. So it is that readers of "Pond Scum and Vultures" will be treated to the tale of slugger Jim Rice ripping the shirt off a scribe's back. And of quarterback Jim McMahon blowing his nose on an offending interviewer. And of an unnamed baseball player announcing the presence of a female reporter in a locker room by inviting his teammates to unzip.

These tales of humiliation pile one upon another, relentlessly, mind-numbingly, until I am left wondering how I survived nearly a dozen years as a sportswriter without losing more of my mind and my dignity than I'm aware of. There are things I wrote and did that I regret, and there are people who I'm sure would still like to see me roasting on an open fire, but somehow the world that Wojciechowski describes is both meaner and more banal than the one I remember. It makes sloppy Oscar Madison and misanthropic Slap Maxwell seem the stuff of documentary rather than fiction, and that saddens me.

Not that I don't know sportswriters who are drunks, bigots, windbags, chippy chasers, cliche mongers and journalistic whores. I do. But many of the men and women I worked with and competed against were far better than that--smart, funny, literate, ethical, socially conscious. They continue to look at the sports page not as a vehicle for extending their childhoods but as a laboratory for writing with the style and passion no other section of the paper would allow.

More important, they dig behind the games to find the human beings who play them and the societal forces that shape the human beings. Unfortunately, in doing so, they open themselves to heartbreak or, at the very least, frustration. Wojciechowski touches on this when he says: "One day you want to write the Great American Novel; the next day you find yourself asking a toothless offensive tackle about his groin pull." But he never develops his point, no doubt because it is easier to go for a laugh with the tale of two sportswriters and a flatulent stripper.

Too bad that isn't the only place where Wojciechowski proves skittish. He does it again after delivering an anecdote that tells as much about reporting in any part of the paper as anything you are ever going to read.

Coach: "Why'd you put that story in the paper today?"

Sportswriter: "Because it's true, Lefty."

Coach: "I know, but why'd you put it in the paper?"

There you have the essence of the business. But does Wojciechowski run with it? Not a chance. Anyone who has read the wry, insightful features he writes for this paper's sports section will realize that he isn't living up to his talent. Maybe he needed an editor to guide him and goad him into taking this, his first book, beyond Leonard Shecter's "The Jocks," Robert Lipsyte's "SportsWorld" and Jerome Holtzman's "No Cheering in the Pressbox," which continue to stand as our best studies of sportswriters as a breed. Instead, his editor was content to let Wojciechowski drift. And drift he does.

So it is left for someone else to deal with the monumental boredom of watching one game after another, the busted marriages brought on by too many road trips, and the seeming impossibility of aging gracefully while the athletes stay forever young.

If that book ever gets written, I hope it will also include the story of what happened when a New England Patriots cornerback shoved Will McDonough, a crusty Boston football writer whom the nation has come to know as a talking head on TV. McDonough knocked the cornerback on his rear end. The punch was more than a blow for freedom of the press. It was proof that not all sportswriters are spineless dolts, much less pond scum and vultures.

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