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SOUND AND VISION

Whiff of Gonzo Is Puff of Fresh Air

November 27, 2000|MIKE PENNER

Hunter Thompson once described sportswriters as "a kind of rude and brainless subculture of fascist drunks whose only real function is to publicize & sell whatever the sports editor sends them out to cover . . . Which is a nice way to make a living, because it keeps a man busy and requires no thought at all."

Which is as accurate today as it was then, nearly 30 years ago, and at least partially explains what Thompson is doing today on ESPN's Web site, pictured shirtless while heaving a football, next to a weekly (at least to this point) sports column bearing the working title (at least to this point) "Hey, Rube."

Hey, rube, it's a cushy gig, it helps pay the Chivas bills, and it's a real-life application of the Good Doctor's old Gonzo work ethic: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

"We are living in dangerously weird times now," Thompson wrote in his third column for ESPN.com, running his made-deadline streak to a remarkable three in a row. So dangerously weird that "there is a Presidential Election, right on schedule, but somehow there is no President." "A new Congress is elected, like always, but somehow there is no real Congress at all--not as we knew it, anyway, and whatever passes for Congress will be as helpless and weak as Whoever has to pass for the 'New President.'

"If this were the world of sports," Thompson surmised, "it would be like playing a Super Bowl that goes into 19 scoreless Overtimes and never actually Ends . . . or four L.A. Lakers stars being murdered in different places on the same day. Guaranteed Fear and Loathing. Abandon all hope. Prepare for the Weirdness. Get familiar with Cannibalism."

This is not the typical stuff you get from ESPN. Intentionally or not, ESPN.com hilariously planted Thompson's column on the same page as customary ESPN fare: Utah basketball Coach Rick Majerus lists his top-five items to order from room service.

(For the record, they are: ice for the coach's knee, Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry's ice cream, hot fudge for the ice cream, cheeseburger with onions, Krispy Kreme doughnuts. This list varies wildly from the Hunter S. Top Five Items To Order From Room Service, which, of course, would be: rum, tequila, crate of grapefruit, stainless-steel bowie knife, ether.)

Hunter Thompson makes sense in this realm because for the last 20 years, ESPN has been nothing if not the worldwide leader in Gonzo envy. Oh, to be so wild, so cutting-edge, so cracked and cool and idolized by the college kids. ESPN didn't have the natural gift of Gonzo, or the recreational drugs--so hard to score mescaline in Bristol--but, boy, have they given it the old college try.

But Gonzo is not hiring the Inane Clown Posse to anchor your nightly highlights show. Gonzo is not Chris Berman, the Lenny Kravitz of sports announcers, recycling 25-year-old riffs by Howard Cosell and Keith Jackson to the snort-laughter of a new generation too young to remember the originals. Gonzo is not Stuart Scott shouting "BOO-YA!" every time another super-sized multimillionaire with a stretch limo and a 12-piece entourage and a bad rap album slams a ball through a hoop. Gonzo is not printing the words in your magazine sideways in a blue font on a green backdrop and scaring all the over-40 readers into re-upping their Sports Illustrated subscriptions even though that magazine peaked shortly after the publication of Thompson's political magnum opus, "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72."

A fundamental tenet of Gonzo: If you can't grow your own, shell out and import some.

So ESPN, with an assist from Senior Vice President and Executive Editor John Walsh, who once worked with Thompson at Rolling Stone, now plumbs the mother lode every Monday for as long as Thompson retains consciousness.

So far, the Doctor's dot-com output has been in lock-step with his late-career literary production--sometimes brilliant, sometimes incoherent, almost always worth the addled ride.

Thompson's ESPN.com debut detailed a three-point plan to shorten the mind-numbing length of major league baseball games, each of them more interesting than anything that has crossed Bug Selig's desktop lately:

1. Eliminate the pitcher. Thompson: "This will knock at least one hour off the length of a game, which is now up to 3:42 . . . They won't be missed. Pitchers, as a group, are pampered little swine with too much money and no real effect on the game except to drag it out and interrupt the action."

2. Limit all games to three hours. "Like football and basketball and hockey, the Baseball game will end at a fixed time. THE SCORE, at that moment, WILL BE FINAL, based on an accumulation of TOTAL BASES IN 3 hours."

3. All baserunners may run to any base (but not backward). "First to Third, Second to Home, etc. And with NO PITCHER in the game, this frantic scrambling across the infield will be Feasible and Tempting."

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