The Nebraska cornhuskers stink, Title IX is an outrage, and Joe Paterno really ought to retire. Who, in his right mind, likes the New York Yankees? Southerners talk funny, Canadians walk funny, and Michael Jordan was—let's be honest—overrated. No team from Texas deserves to make the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, ever. (I will pause here, giving hockey fans time to catch up.)
There. Having chummed the water with the foregoing phrases—none of which I actually believe—SI is certain to attract new pen pals, those men and women who are moved to write Letters to the Editor, the most interesting, informative and egalitarian element of any periodical.
I love them all, from the hateful to the grateful, but the letters I am most touched to receive are a variation on this theme: "I have been reading SI for two months/28 years/since the first issue, which I have had laminated/Scotchgarded/preserved in amber. Your story on John Daly's short game (In the Drink)/ Jeff Bagwell's diet (My Dinner with Andro) had me in tears/stitches. Even as I write, my eyes/pants are still moist...."
The obverse of this coin, of course, is the letter that ends, "Cancel my subscription." This last resort—the journalistic Dear John—is especially effective when it opens with "I have never bought your publication, nor even read it, but I did catch a glimpse of your cover (JUMPIN' JIMINY, IT'S BIMINI!) while looking over the shoulder of a passenger on the number 14 bus to Fort Linda...."
Nothing—not even love between a soldier at war and his high school sweetheart on the home front—excites the epistolary passions like sports. Which is why, with letter writing all but extinct in society at large, SI will receive roughly 28,000 pieces of correspondence in 1999. This figure includes E-mail, which allows a reader's every impulse to be transmitted to the magazine in something resembling real time, so that much of my mail now reads along the lines of "how can u diss the sooners?!?!?" To which I regretfully respond, as John Updike wrote of Ted Williams, "Gods do not answer letters."
Sportswriters, being somewhat the opposite of gods, usually do. Indeed, many columnists, looking for a day off, enjoy, in print, "opening up the old mailbag." Even those of us who respond via regular mail have many ready-made ripostes at our disposal. Among the excellent, time-tested replies to hate mail are, "Dear Sir: Who read my story to you?" and "Dear Madam: I'm happy to see the sanatorium now allows you the use of crayons...." Tragically, mailing such responses is today considered "unprofessional."
It's a good thing, then, that the vast majority of a sports-writer's mail is heartfelt and heartwarming, posted by "fans" looking to help out in one way or another. Concerned readers frequently express fears that I or one of my colleagues may show signs of a substance-abuse problem. ("You must have been smoking crack when you wrote....") Others, eager to engage in an existential exchange of letters, open with grand philosophical questions. ("Who the hell do you think you are?") Still other groupies offer, gratis, the results of their unsolicited—yet comprehensive-research into my roots. ("I'll bet you were conceived when....")
Confidential to R.B. of James Island, S.C.: I am told that Dennis Rodman had nothing to do with it. But thanks for writing!