Not much to add to this post other than to say that I was proud and felt privileged to work with George Vecsey during the past 30 years. I loved his work, appreciated his professionalism and applaud his decision to step back and enjoy life, his wife and his passion of writing. My very best to George and a salute in best way possible, simply passing along his last column and link to his blog. TL A Columnist Steps Away After More Than Three Decades on the Beat
This is a column about a column.
On St. Patrick’s Day in 1980, the sports editor of The New York Times asked if I would consider moving back to the sports department.
The editor, Le Anne Schreiber, said she admired the way I wrote about nuns while covering religion. Find the humanity in sports, she said. Think of it as writing short stories or plays. I cannot imagine any other approach that would have lured me back.
Le Anne thinks she also mentioned the possibility of my writing fill-in Sports of The Times columns, but I don’t remember anxiety about trying out for the big job.
The sports column was a different animal altogether — a public trust in a sense, prominently displayed, a regular personal dialogue with knowing readers, demanding a seven-day commitment and inside knowledge and singular voice. In my mind, I was just passing through, en route to a freelancer’s future of writing books.
Turned out, Schreiber was way ahead of me. She took a vacation in Baja California and came back to tell her bosses that her two years as sports editor were now officially up. The new editor was Joe Vecchione, who had a shrewd and literate instinct, urging me to write in the first person sometimes when I was filling in for the great Dave Anderson and the great Red Smith. Don’t be coy, Joe said; we want your opinions.
In January 1982, Red Smith died, and after a respectful intermission, A. M. Rosenthal, the executive editor, called me into his office and offered me the columnist job. It was a big deal to follow in the grand and consistent and varied tradition, going all the way back to 1927, of John Kieran, Arthur Daley, Robert Lipsyte, Smith and Anderson.
Then Rosenthal issued advice that has sustained me to this day — don’t try to be Red Smith or anybody else. Be yourself. That will be fine. My other newsroom rabbi, Arthur Gelb, peppered me with questions and advice for my distant dances-with-wolves assignment.
That gig is now over. I love being a lifer at The New York Times, but a few things have convinced me that it is time to step back (not using the R-word) and write for the paper occasionally.
I will always treasure the privilege of writing the Sports of The Times column. I appreciated Schreiber’s words but never confused athletes with nuns. But I did aim my columns at a female Times reader who might not be a hard-core fan but might discover me in the sports pages. Why not address universal values? Why cut myself off from part of our smart and complex readership?
My pattern was to mix it up — the Super Bowl one day, a high school gym the next day, the familiar, the unfamiliar, opinion one day, description and mood the next. Goya and war one day, Monet and water lilies the next.
You really couldn’t miss: George and Billy bickering in our town; the last fights of Frazier and Ali; money and drugs; the Islanders — best team I ever covered — winning Stanley Cups in my backyard.
Vecchione was succeeded by Neil Amdur, who prodded me to write more big-ticket columns, often calling me an hour before deadline and saying, “Listen, big guy, I know your column is already edited, but this just happened.” Amdur and Vecchione both sussed out that I could type fast. I loved to spend a few days crafting a theme but also came to love (at least most of the time) the high-wire act — instant profundity about immediate events that people were talking about.
The opinions were always mine; nobody ever told me what to think. I proposed abolishing boxing because it was bad for the brain, but boxers were generally so decent that I loved being around the gyms. Having written about addiction, I was able to discuss the trend of athletes’ entering treatment centers. I wrote about soccer, knowing that the world’s favorite sport would catch on here.
Just a few of my favorite columns:
¶ My friend Rich Murray took his teenage son R. J. hunting in western Pennsylvania right after Thanksgiving in 1982. A four-point buck meandered through the woods and Rich put down his rifle to let R. J. have the shot. But R. J. was munching a leftover turkey sandwich, cranberries and stuffing and all, which meant no venison in the freezer for their relatives. When Rich and R. J. told me the story, we all roared with laughter. In those days, columnists could write their own headlines. Mine was: “The Sandwich Eater” (based on “The Deer Hunter,” of course).
¶ Before the sixth game of the 1986 World Series, I wrote for our early Sunday edition, the so-called bulldog. I described the gloom and doom I had detected on sports-talk radio in Boston early Friday, despite the Red Sox’ 3-2 lead. One fearful fan even complained about poor old Buckner’s defense and warned that the manager had better use Stapleton in the late innings. I suggested that Boston’s bad karma could be traced to the selling of Babe Ruth after the 1919 season. Around midnight, after Mookie Wilson had his epic at-bat, I rewrote the column for the final edition, noting that the bad spirits had struck Boston again. Some people think I invented the phrase the Curse of the Bambino, but I’ll settle for having sensed the bad vibes in the dank Boston air. (Sensed? You couldn’t miss it.)
¶ In 1996, I proposed covering women’s sports just about every day of the coming Summer Games in Atlanta, noting that the International Olympic Committee had rightly increased the events for women. The so-called Games of the Women were graced by soccer, softball and basketball teams from the United States and elsewhere.
¶ A decade ago, I found myself full of skepticism about New York City’s proposal to host the 2012 Summer Games. Fortunately, London was selected. Now I read that the Far West Side of Manhattan is about to boom, in my opinion because a dead-zone stadium was not plopped down in the middle.
They were great years. I was blessed to be around some of the finest performers I have ever seen — that is to say Dave Anderson, Ira Berkow, Bill Rhoden, Selena Roberts and Harvey Araton, a Dream Team of columnists. Many colleagues in the sports department became like family.
Then there were the athletes — Super Bowls; Jordan, Magic and Bird; despite being an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan, I could appreciate the age of Jeter and Rivera; the Olympics and the Tour de France were great, but my eight World Cups of soccer, so far, were the best sporting events on the planet.
If I have one regret — one pitch I’d like back — it is my upbeat commentary during the McGwire-Sosa home run frolics of 1998, after Steve Wilstein of The Associated Press spotted androstenedione in McGwire’s locker. The drug was not illegal in baseball; the sport did not have testing yet; and great newspapers do not indulge in idle speculation. Still, I could have been a bit more cautious a bit earlier.
The world kept changing as our next sports editor, Tom Jolly, chaperoned us into the era of 24-hour news on the Web. I always said I would do this job as long as I could walk faster than my younger colleagues on the ramp up from the clubhouse, which is still the case. My work this past year tells me I still love writing about the human condition, and sports is a great framework for it. I never worried about getting stale because the news and the people induce freshness every working hour.
The New York Times is the greatest newspaper in the world. Long may it arrive on my doorstep. I am proud that Joe Sexton, the current sports editor, has asked me to retain my voice here occasionally. I plan to do stuff with my wife, Marianne, who has seen her considerable painting talent hemmed in by my columnist obsession long enough, and I plan to sometimes emulate my spiritual cousin John Lennon and watch the wheels go round and round. I am blessed with loyal readers, and regular e-mail correspondents from around the world. Everything is good. I will be findable as I continue to honor the ideals Le Anne Schreiber stirred when she said she liked the way I wrote about nuns.