"Working press?" a Pittsburgh Pirate once said to me with a sneer. "That's sorta like jumbo shrimp."
"My favorite oxymoron is guest host," I replied chummily. "You know, like they used to have on the Tonight Show?" But he didn't know. And he didn't care. In fact he thought I was calling him a moron, so he calmly alit from his clubhouse stool and chloroformed me with his game socks.
But I see his point. My life's work is not work. Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight likes to say of sportswriters, "We all learn to write by the second grade; most of us move on to bigger things." Most of us stop throwing chairs and calling ourselves Bobby by the second grade, too. But I see his point.
As a writer on the staff of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, I've had the same day job since I was eight. I was raised in a house with mint-green aluminum siding and spent my days watching ball games in our wood-paneled den. My father loved wood paneling and even had it on the exterior of his station wagon. He'd have preferred mint-green aluminum siding, but it wasn't available on the '74 Ford Country Squire.
Pity, because the Country Squire looked like the crate it was shipped in. Only it didn't run as well. It was not so much a motor vehicle as an oak coffin with a luggage rack, proof that you really can take it with you. Every summer vacation our family of seven was vacuum-packed into that car, and we raced across the country as if through one continuous yellow light, pausing only long enough to attend some big league baseball game—in Houston or Anaheim or Cincinnati. It didn't matter where. The important thing was that for nine innings once every August, Dad forgot the Kafkaesque problems of his suburban existence. Namely, that his house was rusting. And his car had termites.
It all seems so long ago. My brothers and sister grew up and got jobs. I grew up and became a sportswriter, though it is hardly a grown-up pursuit. The naked manager of the California Angels once threw his double-knit uniform pants at me in anger, something that happens all the time to baseball writers and may explain why we're so comfortable wearing polyester. Whereas a similar burst of pantsfire across a conference table at IBM would no doubt be considered inappropriate, especially since the trousers in question were mottled with moist tobacco stains. (Please, God, tell me they were tobacco stains.)
It is hard to believe now, but the heroes of my youth were all as smooth and wholesome as Skippy peanut butter. This surely owes something to the fact that I never saw them naked, that I knew almost nothing about them. I loved a Minnesota Twins catcher named George Mitterwald, but only because I loved the name George Mitterwald. Beyond that, I was faintly aware that his middle name was Eugene and he lived in Orlando. Or that his middle name was Orlando and he lived in Eugene. And I knew that the Fun Fact on the back of his 1974 Topps baseball card said, "George likes to take home movies." If George liked to take anything else—fistfuls of amphetamines, long walks in women's clothing—I was blissfully unaware of it.
For some years now I have wanted to return to that state of blissful oblivion, preferably without a prescription. Which brings us to the story that you hold in your hands. It is an effort to revisit the twin pursuits of my youth: epic car trips and an unhealthy obsession with sports, usually combined. I wanted to get into my Japanese car and drive to American sports shrines for a year, or until I became fully alarmed myself. I wanted to put my finger to the pulse of American sports, and I wanted it to be one of those giant foam-rubber index fingers worn by pinheaded fans across the land.
So I consigned all my worldly possessions to a 6-by-12-foot steel box at one of those U-Lok-It mini storage facilities patronized primarily by serial killers, and I consigned myself to another 6-by-12-foot steel box, a leased Nissan Pathfinder that I loaded with only the barest necessities: 36 compact discs, a set of golf clubs and a dozen foul cigars that might double as road flares in the event of an emergency.
Which is how it was that I arose one stormy July morning in Minneapolis, in the year before my 30th birthday, and embarked on a busman's holiday. I had no fixed itinerary, except to travel the nation in two grand loops, like those in the lowercase L's that punctuate the $295 card-show signature of Bill Russell. My sister-in-law once approached the former Celtic on an airplane and said excitedly, "Mr. Russell, your name is an answer in today's USA Today crossword puzzle." To which Russell replied testily that he didn't give a fig. Or words to that effect. I have often since wondered what the crossword clue was: Cantankerous eager? Peevish pivotman?