I find my colleague in the basement of the newspaper building. He is hiding in the broom closet. He is trying to burn his typewriter.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Getting out of the business,” he says. “Too dangerous.”
Dangerous? Sports writing? I have heard it called many things. I have heard it called juvenile, infantile, puerile and silly. I have an uncle who asks, “Do you actually get paid for that, or do they just give you tickets?”
“Better get out now,” says my colleague. “Before they — shhh! Did you hear something?”
“What?”‘ I say.
“It could be Isiah. Better hurry.”
He lights a match.
“Hmmm,” he says, when the typewriter won’t catch, “maybe I need more gasoline.”
Nearby is a stack of notebooks. Next to the notebooks is a stack of cassettes. “Destroy all evidence,” says my colleague. “That’s the best way. Hurry. You can use my fire.”
“I don’t get it,” I say. “Why would I want to burn all my notes?”
“You fool!” he whispers. “Do you want them to catch you? Do you want them to– shhhh! Did you hear something?’
“Could be Sam Wyche. Better hurry.”
His hands shake. He drops the matchbook and it falls between the keys of the typewriter.
“Damn! Say, do you have a blow torch?” Walking targets “Hold on,” I say. “You’ve been in this business for 40 years. You’ve seen the greatest moments in baseball, football, basketball, hockey. Why do you want to quit?”
“Why?” he says, yanking the tiny tape from each cassette, then ripping it with his teeth. “I’ll tell you why. It’s not safe out there anymore. Didn’t you hear about those New England Patriots ganging up on that female reporter? Didn’t you hear about Isiah Thomas pushing around that TV fellow? Didn’t you hear about Willie Hernandez dumping ice water on some writer’s head?”
“Um, no. I missed that one.”
“It’s a jungle out there! Sports writers aren’t journalists anymore, they’re targets. All of a sudden, people hate us. Hey. I don’t want to be crushed under some linebacker’s cleats. I got a wife and kids.”
He takes a spiral notebook and starts ripping out pages. He crushes them into little balls. “Here,” he says, “chew, then swallow.”
“Don’t you think you’re overreacting?”
“Overreacting?” he says. “Wake up. Smell the coffee. Our profession is on talk shows now. It’s on the news. People think we’re voyeurs. They see us as invaders of the sacred locker room. Coaches would like us burned at the stake. Players accuse us of harassing them — or worse, seeing them without their clothes on!
“Next thing you know they’ll– shhhh! Did you hear something?”
“Could be Kirk Gibson. Hurry!” The game used to be the story I watch as he shreds his notebook from the 1966 Super Bowl. I watch as he takes clippings from the 1950 World Series and dips them in lighter fluid.
“How did things get so crazy?” he asks, looking at an old scorecard with a ketchup stain. “When did sports writing have to become a human rights thing? I never wanted to get involved with harassment and sexism charges. I just wanted to see the games, write about them, tell people a few stories.
“It’s funny. There was this New York quarterback with white shoes back in the ’60s? Said some crazy things. I wrote them. People loved it. And the guy got rich and famous. I never asked for a percentage — even though, without the press, he would have just been another guy in a uniform.
“Same thing with this baseball slugger who said, ‘I’m the straw that stirs the drink.’ I wrote that. He got super rich. I never saw any money. Never asked.
“Guys did great things, I talked to them and wrote about it. They became superstars. They never complained then. And me? I was just happy if I got the score right and didn’t spell anyone’s name wrong. Then I ate a hot dog, smoked a cigar and went to sleep.”
He finds a scissors and begins to cut up his press passes. “Now,” he says.
“I’m afraid to fall asleep. Some basketball player may bust down my door and blame me for his Porsche running out of gas.”
I watch him destroy his evidence. Soon all that remains is the typewriter that won’t burn.
“Ah, well,” he says, “I’ll use it in my next job.”
“So you’re not getting out of journalism?”
“How can I? This is all I know. I’m just gonna switch to a safer field, where the issues aren’t as important to people.”
“What’s that?” I ask.