2011

Of Joe Posnanski and Joe Paterno

I wouldn’t want to be facing Joe Posnanski’s literary dilemma right now.

Joe is a great writer and, by all accounts, a great guy. But as the Penn State situatuion gets messier and messier and messier (just a few moments ago, Mike McQueary testified that he saw Jerry Sandusky having sex with a child, then told Joe Paterno about it), a biography of Joe Paterno gets, well, murkier and murkier and murkier. As a friend said to me, it’s as if you’re writing a book on O.J. Simpson. The magic at USC. Those runs for the Bills. His work as a sideline reporter, as a Monday Night Football host, as a Hertz pitchman. You report on all his charitable endeavors; the way he helped kids and signed a million autographs and smiled the brightest smile …

Then—Bam. Nicole and Ronald.

You can no longer write the same book. You can’t even write the same book up until a certain point, then—when the murders took place—change tone. Why? Because O.J. Simpson’s evil actions speak to the depth and mindset of a human being, and a biographer’s job—his obligation—is to delve into and grasp and explain that mindset. It doesn’t happen at the moment of the tragedy; it happens way before. Maybe his boyhood. Maybe his heyday. The author must figure this out.

Joe Paterno didn’t sexually molest anyone. But the loveable “Joe Pa” that we all knew and embraced wasn’t entirely real—if real at all. He was, it seems, a man who allowed v-e-r-y bad things to happen under his watch; who brought to Penn State University a man who, allegedly, took advantage of young boys; who lorded over a program desperately in need of oversight. Somehow Joe Paterno—king of Penn State—blindly (actually, not blindly) had these terrible, horrible, disgusting, nightmarish things take place on his watch. It is unforgivable and, sadly—no matter how many football players swear by the man—legacy-changing. Life changing, really.

Hence, if you’re Joe Posnanski, you’re in a tough pickle. You can: A. write the book you initially set out to write (one discussing Paterno’s legacy and decency and the life lessons he imparted on legions of Nittany Lions) and risk destroying your own legacy as a reporter; B. Blow up everything you’ve done and make it a book primarily about the scandal, and a football coach who, somehow, lost his footing; C. Try and do both—a seemingly impossible task. Once we find out O.J. killed his wife, his wacky barbs with Howard Cosell don’t really resonate. Once we find out the Joe Paterno presided over such evil, encouraging words to John Sacca don’t really fly.

Again, I don’t envy Joe. What would I do? Honestly, I’d call my publisher, ask for, oh, six extra months and hammer this story. I’d change the entire focus of the book and own the Penn State scandal. I’d report and report and report, and, if need be, apologize to Paterno for the different course. “Look, I know you thought one thing,” I’d tell him. “But you have to understand—it’s a different world now.”

Oy.

Sports Illustrated …

… names Sweetness “the year’s best sports biography” in the new issue. Made my day.

I know I’ve said this before, but the beating really took a toll on me. Not because of the specific words or anger, but because I just felt as if people—in not reading the book—were completely missing the point.

I’m glad people are now taking the time. Means the world to me.

The Thompsons

 * No Quaz this week—long story, can’t explain. But it’ll return next Thursday.

So today I experienced what has become, without question, one of my favorite holiday rituals: I received a card from Warren Thompson.

Warren is the widower of Lynn Thompson, an absolutely wonderful women who allowed me to profile her way back in 1995—when she was dying of cancer. At the time I was 23 and painfully immature. I was working as a features writer for The Tennessean, young and dumb and unwilling to take advice from everyone. The local alternative weekly, The Nashville Scene, rightly wrote “If there’s one cow-pie in the field, The Tennessean’s Jeff Pearlman will manage to step in it.” I screwed up and screwed up and screwed up, and had my bosses wondering whether I’d ever figure things out.

Then, one day, my editor asked whether I’d like to write a piece about a sick woman and her loving husband and their garden. Which I did. Lynn Thompson was marvelous. Wonderful. Strong. Courageous. I knew nothing about life, and she explained it best she could. Dying, she told me, wasn’t as scary as you’d think—it was more the idea of all the events she’d miss. Her children growing up, getting married, having kids. She regretted her inevitable absence and, I think, felt burdened by how it would impact her daughter, Kate, and sons Nick and Brendan. Warren, meanwhile, was the husband I aspired to one day be. When his wife was at her lowest, he was there, caring, supporting, reassuring. He promised to maintain her garden, which led to the headline atop my piece: Lynn’s Garden.

I digress. Lynn passed shortly after the story ran, and for the ensuing 15 years Warren has religiously kept me on the ol’ holiday card list. What I love are the family shots—his kids with spouses; his kids with grandkids; his family expanding. That Lynn isn’t here to enjoy those things still breaks my heart. It’s not fair, and never will be fair. But I have little doubt that, in her heart, this is what she wanted—happiness and joy for her loved ones.

As for me, there aren’t all that many stories that I regularly look back upon. Lynn’s Garden, however, was different. My father mentioned the piece in his toast at my wedding. I’ve told myriad friends and relatives about the experience. And while I can’t say the piece changed my career, it certainly impacted it. You don’t experience the likes of Lynn Thompson and go unmoved.

You grow.

You mature.

You develop.

 

 

Why the Knicks are rolling, by Brian Turnbull

As readers of this site know, I like to give young writers a place to show their stuff. Today Brian Turnbull, pride of the Bronx and a die-hard Knicks fan, explains why his team is about to take the next step (art courtesy of Dante Turnbull, his ultra-talented younger bro) …

For years the Knicks have been viewed as one of the worst teams in the NBA.

Overpaid players … one bad trade after another … bloated contracts—and no mater plan to speak of. Then, something happened. The Knicks took a huge step toward winning a championship last summer when they signed Amare Stoudamire, the All-Star forward, and added Raymond Felton, an emerging point guard. Even when Felton was traded, the Knicks wound up improving by adding Chaucy Billups and the amazing Carmelo Anthony. Suddenly, the Knicks were locks to make the playoffs. And even though they were swept by the aging Celtics, the season was a success.

Now they open the season against the Celtics on Christmas Day at the Garden. It’s going to be an amazing season.

After the five-month lockout the Knicks have made another big move In getting Tyson Chandler—forming one of the elite frontcourts in the NBA. Moreover, they have picked up Mike Bibby, a former All-Star, to play point guatd, and return the valuable Jarred Jefferies (sadly, we lost Billups. But we won’t forget the awesome three he hit against Miami). With Melom Amare And Chandler in the frontcoach and a stronger defensive presence, the Knicks look like the team to beat in the east. The Knicks had the offense—and now the defense.

Even if we don’t win it all, it’ll be a great season.

Who is Tim Tebow?

In following (and, truthfully, enjoying) Tebow Magic over the past bunch of weeks, I’m torn over who, exactly, the quarterback is—and will ultimately be. Here are my three categories:

1. Jackie Robinson Cooper—In The Kid from Left Field, Gary Coleman plays “J.R. Cooper,” a little kid who becomes the San Diego Padres’ good-luck charm and ultimately (if memory serves) manager. He has no real skill or ability, but players believe in him. And, gosh heck, you gotta believe!

2. Mark Fidrych: In the magical year of 1976, the Detroit Tigers rookie went 19-9 with a 2.34 ERA, winning AL Rookie of the Year, as well as the hearts of fans everywhere. The Bird was, simply, a quirky, goofy guy who came off as the average man. He talked to baseballs, scratched up the mound, celebrated like a fan. He was, well, you. Then—POP!—it ended. Injuries, ineffectivess. But it was one magical little run.

3. Steve Young: The BYU product, as everyone knows, could run, could throw (lefty!), could lead the troops. He goes down as one of the great quarterbacks in NFL history, but started as a mere curiosity, a la Tebow. The man just needed a chance to show what he could do.

So who is Tim Tebow?

My guess …

Scars, strikes and John

So John Rocker’s new book is about to come out. It’s called Scars & Strikes and can be ordered here, at John’s personal website.

Tonight I spent a few minutes listening to this interview, which John conducted recently with New York Baseball Digest. It’s an interesting segment in that, quite often, John sounds intelligent and thoughtful (which, I truly believe, he often is). He breaks down baseball well, is honest about his steroid abuse, bemoans the fates of men like Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire. It’s genuinely good stuff.

Well, mostly good stuff.

I suppose my main beef (and that’s probably too strong of a word) with John comes when he discusses our interview from the late fall of 1999. To be blunt, he’s either misremembering or, simply, full of shit. I lean toward the second. Not that I really blame him—it was an embarrassing time, and his suspension from the game was an enormous overreaction by a commissioner too eager to placate the fans. But Rocker’s whole we-were-debating-foreign-policy excuse for his comments isn’t merely wrong, it’s ludicrous. More to the point, how the hell could I have taken his words out of context, as he maintains. By “fat monkey,” did he actually mean Randall Simon was a big plush toy? By “queer with AIDS” did he mean “queer,” as in “queerishly curious”?

I digress. By the sound of things, Rocker doesn’t much care for me—but he’s clearly followed my career. And, to be honest, I’ve followed his, from time to time, too. I’m guessing he sees us as linked by that story, and I do, also. Is this a good thing? Not particularly. A bad thing? Meh. I still get reminded of the piece quite often; still am asked and asked and asked about it; still explain the story to college classes (as an example of how one shouldn’t interject his opinions into an interview … that the best thing a reporter can do is let the subject talk, uninterrupted).

Will I read John’s book? Mmm … probably not.

But maybe. Just maybe.

PS: The one thing I sorta don’t understand: If you’re John, why not just tell the full truth and admit you f#@!ed up? What’s the harm? “I was young and dumb and I was trying to show off for Sports Illustrated. It was so incredibly stupid, but here’s how I’ve grown and learned.” Instead, the man peddles SPEAK ENGLISH T-shirts. Sigh.

Mick Cronin

There are very few big-time Division I sports coaches I’d want my kids to learn from. I find most of these guys to be used car salesmen, riding on the backs of kids who’ll leave college sans degree or enlightenment. Sure, there are exceptions. But few. The whole system disgusts me, times 1,000.

That said, consider me the newest fan of Mick Cronon, head coach of Cincinnati’s men’s basketball team. Why? His words after the pathetic brawl between players from his team and Xavier today the end of a game last week:

“These guys, very few of them are ever going to make a dollar playing basketball. They are here to get an education at two great universities and they need to appreciate that. The world don’t revolve around them, around basketball. They need to learn how to act. They need to have respect for the fact they are on a scholarship, that people come to see them play. That’s just the facts of college athletics. There’s too much glorification of all of sports in our society. The fact is, guys are here to get an education. They represent institutions of higher learning. Xavier has been a great school for years. We are trying to cure cancer at Cincinnati. I go to school at a place where they discovered the vaccine for polio and created Benadryl. I think that’s more important than who wins a basketball game. And our guys need to have appreciation for the fact they are there on a full scholarship. And they’re there to represent institutions with class and integrity … I have never been this embarrassed.”

Amen.

The homecoming

Returned to my roots yesterday, doing a Sweetness talk and signing at the Mahopac Public Library—probably, oh, one mile from my childhood home.

I’m 39-years old … haven’t lived regularly in Mahopac in 21 years. Yet it remains a very important place to me. First, because I happen to be extremely nostalgic. But also because, well, in Mahopac I see much of my life path. Riding bikes up Kings Ridge. Sledding down Emerald Lane. Max the dog from across the street, showing up at our door for crackers. Hitting tennis balls over the house with a baseball bat. Night tag in Gary Miller’s yard. Sitting on Mr. Gargano’s couch and watching the Mets. Mahopac is the place where Jon Powell introduced me to Run DMC; the place where I had crushes on Melissa Fiore and Michele Sheehan and Teresa McClure; the place where I (slowly) developed into a man. I probably ran around Lake Mahopac 200 times. I could still do the walk from Emerald Lane to Rodak’s Deli blindfolded. The smells … the sounds … the tastes. Still fresh. Still vivid.

So standing there yesterday, looking out upon an audience that included Mr. Gargano and Mrs. DiGioia and classmates and peers and aspiring scribes … very emotional. Sitting in the front row was Mike, a sportswriter for the Chieftain, Mahopac High’s student newspaper. Twenty years ago, that was me. I would have been there, anxious to hear the ramblings of someone lucky enough to cover sports for a living.

Now I’m the lucky one.