Deaths in the Family

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The great V.J. Lovero.

In case you missed this, on Thursday Sports Illustrated laid off its six remaining staff photographers. They are Robert Beck, Simon Bruty, Bill Frakes, David E. Klutho, John W. McDonough, and Al Tielemans.

And they are all amazing.

I hate what’s going on in journalism, and I particularly hate what’s going on—layoff-wise—at Sports Illustrated. It’s a place I still consider my journalism home. Back in the day, SI was the place you wanted to work. That’s not an exaggeration. It was a mecca of both great writing and great reporting; an entity unafraid to spend big bucks in tracking down stories. When I was a baseball writer in the early 2000s, the entire focus was upon getting material others outlets did not. It was about being the absolute best. And, I believe, Sports Illustrated was. And often still is.

But it’s not the same.

A huge part of that awesomeness was the photo staff. There are pictures and there are pictures—and these guys took pictures. I spent a good chunk of time with Robert, Bill, John and Al, and they routinely blew me away. They simply found the images others couldn’t quite get. How? I’m not sure. Timing. Instinct. Aggressiveness. They were elite. They are elite.

This is sort of a tangent, but when 9.11 happened, I remember my mother saying that it was a good thing my Grandma Marta had died two years earlier, because, “I don’t think she could have taken this.” I thought of that sentiment earlier today, because when I heard of the layoffs my mind immediately flashed to V.J. Lovero, my all-time, all-time, all-time favorite Sports Illustrated photographer and a man who seemed to appear at all the same games I was asked to cover. V.J. was funny and quick-witted and well-connected, and both ballplayers and writers gravitated toward him. He was an amazing storyteller. There were few better moments than standing by V.J.’s side, hearing him spin a yarn. The best? One time he was in a restaurant in Seattle, and he saw Giants first baseman Will Clark at a nearby table. V.J. sent a beer with his regards, and Will nodded. After finishing the drink, Clark walked over to V.J. and, in his typical high-pitched cackle, shouted out, “Thanks for the beer, B.J.!”

I love that. We all loved that. Heard the story 100 times, and V.J.’s narrative skills made it funnier with each telling. When he died of cancer in 2004, well, it was the worst. Just the worst. But, in the same way my mom felt about Grandma and 9.11, I’m glad he’s not here for this. Because it would crush him.*

Anyhow, all the photographers have their stories, their tales, their narratives of behind-the-scenes sporting lives. Talking to Al is a delight. Robert can make you cackle. John—terrific. Bill—a pro’s pro.

I’m heartbroken.

* Obviously, I wish V.J. were alive.