Chicago cubs first baseman Mark Grace served as a radio analyst during the playoffs and so had cause to enter the press box one day to retrieve a box lunch provided for members of the media. Inside his lunchbox he found a candy-bar wrapper, its contents already eaten, and a chocolate-smeared napkin—which had wiped a man's mouth—lying like the Shroud of Turin atop his sandwich. Grace surveyed the assembled scribes, and the scales fell from his eyes. "You guys," he said, "are slime."
Precisely. We are slime, though the descriptive we use on our tax forms—those of us who pay our taxes—is "journalist." Behind the Oz-like curtain of that word, we hide: Fat guys questioning the fitness of Cal Ripken, booze hounds berating Mickey Mantle for drinking, skirt-chasers chastising Wade Boggs for infidelity. Sportswriters are people who—while settling into a free front-row seat, while complaining about the complimentary meal just devoured—can carp at length about an athlete's sense of entitlement. Jock-sniffing, bellhop-stiffing know-it-alls, we are accountable to no one, while holding everyone accountable to us.
Forget love: It's sportswriting that means never having to say you're sorry. Sportscasting, too. A television reporter can insist six times in a 2�-minute interview that Pete Rose apologize for gambling, while expressing a Roselike reluctance to cop his own nationally televised mea culpa. "I don't want to apologize," NBC's Jim Gray told reporters a day after his now famous Tussle with Charlie Hustle. Though two nights later, at network knifepoint, Gray did offer a conditional apologia—the kind that goes, "If the interview went on too long, then I'm very sorry"—it was only as a Clintonian last resort.
Do as we say, athletes, not as we do. Sports journalists are always advising you to retire at the top of your game, lest your legacy be tarnished, lest you embarrass yourself. Yet every one of us will keep working until we fall facedown in our gazpacho—ladled out free of charge in the press tent at PGA National. We'll ridicule a physical genius for missing a fastball by an eighth of an inch while 50,000 strangers scream unspeakable things at him, though none of us—not even in Little League—could hit sand if we fell off a camel.
It's an eternal mystery, really, that anyone listens to a thing we say: We're expense-account cheats denouncing Heisman candidates for taking deep discounts on clothing. We're press-pass holders haranguing Atlanta Braves fans for not buying every last $60 playoff ticket. We're middle-class, middle-aged white guys who insist in print that an impoverished 17-year-old resist the NBA's million-dollar offers and go to college. Most of us spent five years in college tethered to a beer bong, but so what? Sportswriting is Oz: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
We—the minibar-clearing, Spectravision-leering, deodorant-fearing members of the fourth estate—blithely sit in judgment of just about everyone in the universe. We're the kind of people who would eat your candy bar, soil your napkin, then deny you entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame for failing to meet our exacting standards of moral rectitude.
The Bible (which I once flipped open accidentally while reaching for the Dewar's on my hotel nightstand) says, "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" I don't know about these Pharisees. But woe, big-time, unto the scribes.