Sportswriters are children. Children can't grow up to be sportswriters because sportswriters aren't grown-ups. When Mickey Mantle required a new liver, one of his doctors was asked—during a formal press conference—if the donor was still alive. The surgeon smiled paternally and said, "You're a sportswriter, aren't you?"
Sports editors, on the other hand, are adults. Many own at least one sport coat. The pockets are invariably plastic-lined, for smuggling shrimp out of cocktail receptions, but the mere veneer of civility gives editors an advantage over writers, few of whom even own a necktie. Once, in a tony restaurant, political writer Christopher Hitchens was made to wear the house's hideous red loaner, which had the surface area (and approximate stain patterns) of a lobster bib. Hitchens so liked the tie that he wore it again four nights later—on CNN's Crossfire.
Compared to writers, then, editors are Gibraltars of responsibility, and as such are entrusted with many indispensable duties. The editor, for instance, translates a writer's raw prose into clear, grammatical language. (That language, alas, is Chichewa, the official tongue of Malawi.) The conscientious editor is also the writer's advocate: a character witness before judges and the jackals in accounting (who persist in questioning the writer's $403 dinner bill with business contacts "J. Cuervo" and "G. Livet"). In short, the sports editor wears many hats, but all those hats have this in common: the logo of a golf-club manufacturer.
Which isn't to imply that an editor spends all of his or her time at cocktail receptions, denuding the shrimp trees and hoarding the giveaway golf hats. On the contrary, editors write the most prominent copy in print journalism. Editors write the headlines.
The best news headlines have always employed puns so tortured as to attract the attention of Amnesty International. (Separatists fleeing Spain through a narrow mountain pass begot TOO MANY BASQUES IN ONE EXIT.) This was not lost on sports editors, who secretly met years ago to catalog the inviolable rules of headline writing. Among the laws set down at the Geneva (Typeface) Convention: Every time Ivan Lendl was eliminated from a tennis tournament, English-language publications were duty-bound to describe him as a BOUNCED CZECH, a CANCELED CZECH or having just CZECHED OUT. Upbeat stories on the St. Louis or Arizona or Louisville Cardinals had to be titled CARDINALS RULE or IT'S IN THE CARDS. Downbeat stories: CARDINAL SINS or HOUSE OF CARDS.
To this day, the SI swimsuit issue must contain at least one story whose headline adheres to this beloved formula: "Dated Exclamation + Exotic Location = Headline," as in WOWEE, IT'S MAUI! or GOLLY, IT'S BALl! or BEGORRAH, IT'S BORA BORA!
Team nicknames—D-backs, T-wolves—are conceived with headline writers in mind. In the '60s the Houston Colt .45s considered changing their name to the Astronauts, but shortened that to Astros, knowing that headline writers would do so anyway. Peevishly, many headline writers further pruned the name to 'Stros. Team names must be reducible to a monosyllable (Tribe, Yanks, Phils, Nugs). Indeed, TRIBE YANKS PHILS NUGS makes an intriguingly lurid tabloid headline. You'd read that story.
Tabloids have their own secret language, in which tab is not merely short for tabloid but also stands in for the verb to call, so that a story on a Canadiens draft pick might be headed TAB HABS' GRAB FAB. Tabloid readers will know precisely what that means.
A great headline can force you to read a terrible story. It's a clever carnival barker who draws you into the tent and then abandons you, a sucker left looking for the exit.