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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Recovering From the Sportin' Life

March 15, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

My name is Mike, and I am a recovering sportswriter.

Please take pity on me. Quitting sports is tough. I had a four-hour-a-day habit.

I tried so hard to kick. I checked myself into a clinic in Palm Springs, where they made me eat something called vegetables and watch TV networks that begin with the letter C.

They made me read the front page. I'm the kind of guy who looks at the Wall Street Journal for the pictures.

They told me to turn on my TV and watch "48 Hours" and "60 Minutes." I asked, "Why don't you just say, '49 hours?' "

They suggested I try PBS. I thought PBS affected only women.

A doctor asked, "Would you like to become an ex-sportswriter?"

I answered, "Sure. How?"

"It's like a lobotomy," he said. "We drill a hole in your head, but then we add brains."

*

Well, as someone once said--I think it was Heidi Fleiss--changing occupations isn't easy.

Year after year, I saw the same old stuff. I saw men play with balls. I saw women play with balls. I saw men play with pucks. A few weeks ago, in Japan, I saw women play with pucks.

I covered games and events in 22 countries. I covered everything but a drag race between Dennis Rodman and Marv Albert. I covered every sport but that Alaska sled dog thing. If I wanted to see men, women and animals suffer and go numb from the cold, I would move back to Chicago.

I interviewed 14-year-old gymnasts. I no longer knew what to ask.

("Read any good books lately? Color any good books lately?")

I interviewed Senior Tour golfers. I no longer knew what to ask.

("What's the most difficult part of your game--hitting a ball into the hole or getting a ball out of the hole?")

I interviewed baseball players who spat in umpires' faces and basketball players who choked their coaches.

(Me: "What is it you want?" Them: "I want some respect.")

Ultimately, I had enough.

An editor at The Times--a man I respected, until he offered me this job--asked if I would like to not be a sportswriter anymore.

"No," I said, "but I bet our readers would."

Sportswriting is a noble profession. Bat Masterson was a sportswriter in New York, after he hung up his gun. Rube Goldberg was a sportswriter, before he created his contraptions. Damon Runyon was. Ring Lardner was. A lot of people don't know this, but Louisa May Alcott was a sportswriter. I think she covered the Clippers for a couple of years.

Richard Nixon said if he hadn't been a politician, he would have been a sportswriter. I sure wish he had been a sportswriter.

Gerald Ford once was quoted, "I'd rather be on the sports page than on the front page." When he played golf, spectators were in danger of being found on the obit page.

Ronald Reagan was once a radio sportscaster. He never would have made it as a sportswriter. His hair was too nice and he was too well dressed.

*

Some of my favorite films featured Humphrey Bogart as a hard-hitting sportswriter ("The Harder They Fall"), Spencer Tracy as a dapper sportswriter ("Woman of the Year") and Walter Matthau as a sloppy sportswriter ("The Odd Couple," a documentary). Robert Duvall played one in "The Natural" who wrote the story, took the photographs and drew a cartoon. What a guy. I rooted for Duvall, and for that stuck-up Robert Redford to strike out.

My editor wants to know what I know about the real world. He gave me a pop quiz.

"What is the capital of California?" he asked.

"About $900."

"Who is Pete Wilson?" he asked.

"One of the Beach Boys."

"True or false?" he asked. "Sonny Bono's wife is running for his seat in Congress."

"True," I said. "And I loved her in 'Moonstruck.' "

"If you could ask Bill Clinton any one question, what would it be?"

" 'Can I have Hillary?' "

He told me to start Sunday.

*

Mike Downey's column will appear Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Readers may write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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