Irene Silverman, knowing of the quietly desperate lives columnists live — even weekly ones, whom Jimmy Breslin once referred to as “retired” — gave me as she was walking up the back stairs the Wednesday before last a long essay from The New York Times on the “the power and glory of sportswriting.”
Having thanked her, and having ventured hopefully that “it might be good for a column,” I began to read. And, lo, the writer, Nicholas Dawidoff, began with a rather depressing quote from Richard Ford, who he said had likened a sportswriter to “an old-fashioned traveling salesman with a line of novelty household items . . . there is very little that is ever genuinely creative to it [sportswriting] at all.”
I presume Dawidoff went on to refute all that, but I remembered it differently: I had a quote of my own, I said, by the same writer, oddly enough, which I’d taken as a hearty endorsement of what I did. “I think I have the quote up on my wall. . . .”
Moments later, I called out to her, having peered myopically at a number of curled, underlined, thumbtacked vade mecums, “I’ve found it! It’s yellow, shrunken, and wrinkled, but here it is. . . . ‘And I thought, What would a man do if he were living a happy life? What job would he have? Hell, he’d be a sportswriter! What else?’ — Richard Ford [!]”
Back to Dawidoff. . . . “What Mr. Ford . . . overlooked is that for really good writers, sports offers an opportunity to express all the pleasure and passion of life.”
Stop, read no further: That is why I call it the joy department.
And that is why last night after having damned selfish and purblind capitalists in the voice of Cheever’s Mrs. Oxencroft, and having been warned by Mary, who sensed a columnar rant coming, that it was far easier to tear down than to build up, I, feigning hurt, said, “Well, as a sportswriter, I’m always building things up, I write about the spirit.”
She knew damn well I wrote about the spirit, she said spiritedly. Who knew better than she, who contributed in such great measure to my happy state as muse, lover, helpmate, drudge.
If “the essence of good sportswriting [is] empathy,” as Dawidoff concludes, then to do it locally, among one’s fellows, counts, I think, for far more than paying court to empyrean pros.
Toss in a column that can be about any old thing, a woman who outstrips all praise and makes it halt behind her, and what could be better?