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Road Swing
Steve Rushin
October 19, 1998
For a year the author cruised the highways and byways of America in search of the soul of sports, and he found it in shrines hallowed and profane, packed stadiums, retro bars and gloriously greasy food
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October 19, 1998

Road Swing

For a year the author cruised the highways and byways of America in search of the soul of sports, and he found it in shrines hallowed and profane, packed stadiums, retro bars and gloriously greasy food

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Sportswriters had their own (out-of-the-way and much ignored) corner of the hall, I am proud to say. It housed an exhibit called Scribes and Mikemen, two coinages of that inane and archaic sportswriterese that I so adore. "By 1900, most sports-writers covered the game from press boxes protected by chicken wire," said a caption beneath a length of chicken wire. Indeed, pecking away at typewriters in a chicken-wire cage, sportswriters could scarcely be distinguished from chickens. An examination of the resulting prose wouldn't clarify matters much, I'm afraid.

A Sporting News column called "Clouting 'Em with Joe King" was on display and bore the unutterably euphonious headline SHALLOW HURLING BALKS BUCS 'N' BIRDS. I couldn't get it out of my head, and I strutted around repeating it softly: "Shallow Hurling Balks Bucs 'n' Birds. Shallow Hurling Balks Bucs 'n' Birds." I looked and sounded a bit like a clucking chicken when at last I left the Hall of Fame and went blinking out into the Cooperstown sunlight.

Louisville, Kentucky

There are 47 stables at Churchill Downs, which is home, in peak season, to 1,400 horses. Among the residents of this equine Levittown is a roan named Rapid Gray. He was 16 years old at the time of my visit—about 55 in human years—and held the track record for seven furlongs. Alas, the Derby is a 10-furlong race, which may be why Gray was never entered in the Run for the Roses. But the fact remains that Rapid Gray was once at the top of his profession.

I met the horse after infiltrating a tour group and was immediately struck by how uncannily he resembled a retired sports star of the human race. His massive upper body was borne by creaky old legs. He scratched out an undignified living greeting fans. They said frank things about him to each other, right in front of his nose, as if he couldn't hear or understand a word of it. Then they came closer and stroked him and whispered sweet nothings in his ear. He was given free shoes for life. He never bought a meal. And women got in line to ride him.

Rapid Gray is expected to spend a few more years growing more gray and less rapid before joining Man o' War and Secretariat in the next life. Indeed, the tour guide was giving an elegy for those two great champions—"Secretariat's heart was three times the size of the average thoroughbred's..."—when a hatchet-faced lady in stretch pants piped up: "Is Man o' War stuffed?"

"I beg your pardon?" asked the guide.

"Man o' War. I heard he was stuffed."

"No, ma'am," said the guide, harnessing every atom of restraint in his body. "Man o' War was not"—he smiled weakly—"stuffed."

The woman curled her lip in a pout, disappointed that famous thoroughbreds of the Bluegrass had not been taxidermied for her photo-op edification. Her question elicited some head-shaking and eye-rolling among the horsey set on the tour, and when I arched an eyebrow of my own at the woman, she blurted defiantly, "Well...Roy Rogers stuffed Trigger!"

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