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Unlike the Globies, Roller Derby skaters were unaware that you should play up to a writer from a national magazine; rather, they felt no compunction about embarrassing me. One of the most prominent skaters—let's call him Donnie—was flamboyantly gay, and late one night in Minneapolis, when I was seated with several skaters in a dark hotel bar after a game, he made a move on me. It was duly noted by those in attendance. As the plot would have it, I had already arranged to ride alone with Donnie to Duluth the next day. Also duly noted.
When the game began in the packed Duluth arena, I was seated by myself at the press table. After only a jam or two, the Bay Bombers called timeout and skated over to a position just above me. There, a cappella, led by their fabled captain, Charlie O'Connell, they looked down upon me and sweetly sang, "Here comes the bride."
I was mortified, but then it dawned on me that none of the baffled Duluth patrons understood what was going on, so I blew kisses to the Bombers, and the game resumed.
It's ironic, but in a profession in which we necessarily bunch up, I became an oxymoron, the lone-wolf sportswriter. Research a subject, make phone calls, go out somewhere alone, scout about, interview, return to my house, write, turn the story in. Long-term parking, aisle seats, shuttles, rental cars, motels, interstates, cheeseburgers and fries, minibars, Magic Fingers. I wasn't just writing about Americana. I was Americana. I now own the largest collection of hotel shampoo bottles in the world. (I don't believe there's a second largest.)
Of course, if you have curiosity and the right temperament, being a writer alone on the road is fascinating. In dealing with people as subjects, you must be something of a chameleon, an actor, and I have a touch of that in me. The people you're writing about don't know you, so you stress the facets of your personality that most please them. But if there's one regret I've had as a sportswriter, it's that the major sports are so predominantly male that you don't get to write about many women. The reasons why that's unfortunate for a male writer are 1) men aren't as inclined to open up to men as women are, and 2) except where sex is involved, men and women talk more honestly to one another. There's an instinctive flirtation built in. Interviewing is really only what you learned to do on a high school date. It's "What kinda music do you like?" taken to a somewhat higher level.
Then again, the one time I was frightened by a subject, she was a woman—and probably the smallest person I ever interviewed. Robyn Smith, who would later marry Fred Astaire, was the best female jockey at that time, and while doing a piece on her I discovered a few, let us say, fibs that she had told to make her life more enthralling before she became a jockey. We were sitting alone in a barn when I confronted her with these inconvenient facts. She was holding a rider's crop, and as I began politely inquiring into these discrepancies, she slapped that whip across her palm—glaring at me all the while. Any moment, I expected to find out what it feels like to be a horse's withers, but mercifully Robyn allowed me to leave the barn unscathed.
In any event, of all athletes I'm most intrigued by jockeys and baseball pitchers. Pitchers fascinate me because a live arm is such a capricious possession and a dicey thing to depend on, and jockeys interest me mostly, I suppose, because I'm so tall and they're such brave little people. I remember being at the Preakness Ball in 1972, standing at a urinal next to Ron Turcotte, who was riding the favorite—the Kentucky Derby winner, Riva Ridge—the next day. He looked up at me and said, "Hey, how 'bout giving me a couple inches off your top, eh?" (Ron was Canadian.)
"If I did," I said, "you wouldn't be riding Riva Ridge tomorrow."
He laughed and nodded ruefully. He didn't win that Preakness, but he won the Triple Crown the next year on Secretariat. Then, only five years later, he went down in a spill and has been paralyzed, in pain, ever since. I always wondered whether he would've liked making that deal with the devil: taking some of my height, never having the glory—never having Secretariat—but always having his legs, having peace.
Unfortunately, being a sportswriter is like being Oscar Wilde's picture of Dorian Gray. You age as all around you the players stay forever young. You stick around while your contemporaries grow old in sports years and fade away. "I'm sorry, I'd like to be your friend," Bill Russell told me when he retired, "but friendship takes a lot of effort if it's going to work, and we're going off in different directions in our lives." And so here comes the next cohort, only now they're not your peers. Your portrait ages some more, and now the coaches are of your vintage. As you grow older, in fact, you gravitate toward stories about coaches, not just because they're now your new contemporaries but because they've lived longer, more complicated, lives. They're simply better stories. Coaches are plots. Players are snapshots.