‘The Miracle on Ice … will always be No. 1 on my list’ (A candid interview with Ron Rapoport)

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Sept. 1, 2014) — During Ron Rapoport’s long, distinguished career in sports journalism, his work has been showcased by some of the biggest U.S. news outlets.

He was a sports columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and Los Angeles Daily News, a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times and an NPR commentator for “Weekend Edition.” He also wrote for The Associated Press, while he was based in New York and San Francisco.

His books include “The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones’ and the Golden Age of Golf, (in 2008),” “Betty Garrett and Other Songs: A Life on Stage and Screen (1999),” which he co-authored with Garrett, and “Love in the NBA: A Player’s Uninhibited Diary (1975),” which he collaborated on with Stan Love. He wrote “Covering the Bases: The Most Unforgettable Moments in Baseball in the Words of the Writers and Broadcasters Who (1997)” with Benedict Cosgrove, and “How March Became Madness: How the NCAA Tournament Became the Greatest Sporting Event in America (2006)” with Eddie Einhorn.

He edited “A Kind of Grace: A Treasury of Sportswriting by Women” (1994). He also edited “From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sportswriting from the Tribune, Sun-Times, and Other Newspapers.” The book was released in August 2013.

Rapoport, a member of Stanford University’s class of 1962, is retired from the daily grind and the nonstop demands of making deadlines, but he remains attuned to the pulse of the business and what makes it tick.

In a recent email exchange, Rapoport, who resides in the Los Angeles area, offered his thoughts on the state of sports journalism in 2014 and some general thoughts on his career and influences, too.

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How has the sports media landscape changed, for better and for worse, as the Internet age has given way to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media apps in this era of the 24/7/365 news cycle? But with all of these tools in a fast-changing landscape, has the challenge of being a quality wordsmith and reporter really changed?

Rapoport: It’s changed for the better in that it is so easy to do research these days–what did we do before Google?–and for the worse because the writer has to do so much more to do besides write. I’m in the guinea-pig generation, I guess–we started with typewriters (remember them?), then moved on to every generation of portable computer the tech guys came up with. But I missed the blogging, tweeting, podcasting and all the rest of it, for which I thank my lucky stars. I don’t know how writers do it these days. They’re always working. When do they have time to watch the game or, heaven forbid, sit and think? It’s a mystery to me.

There’s great admiration for Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully for his humility, longevity and brilliance as a broadcaster, and that’s fascinating to observe. Can you share a story about him that probably most people haven’t heard?

I don’t know whether people outside Los Angeles know this, but this season most Dodger fans haven’t been able to see or hear Vin except for a few innings on the radio. A dispute between cable companies has prevented 70 percent of Dodger fans from getting the broadcasts and it’s a shame. Many people say they miss Vin as much as they do the Dodgers and when the mayor of Los Angeles asked the FCC to get involved in resolving the dispute, he specifically mentioned how much Los Angeles misses Vin Scully. Can you imagine any other broadcaster being cited in this way? Vin is well into his 80s now and as one of the lucky 30 percent, the best thing I can say about him is that he’s as good as ever.

In print and online, who are a half-dozen or so sportswriters and columnists you consider among the best in the business today?

Rapoport: I’m ashamed to say I don’t read many of the online writers, though I understand they’re doing a lot of good work, particularly long-form pieces. I’m just more of a print guy, I guess. Go ahead and call me a dinosaur. I don’t mind. I was sorry to lose fine writers like Rick Reilly and Joe Posnanski to the Internet. I just don’t know where to go to find them.

The best I do read? There are several in the Los Angeles Times I think do good work–Bill Plaschke, Bill Shaikin and a few others–and some in The New York Times, too. I think Karen Crouse does a huge job covering golf and Olympic sports for them. And I know there are other good people around the country. Sports has always drawn good writers for a variety of reasons, and I think it always will.

For your own enjoyment, do you have a few “must-read” sportswriters and columnists throughout the United States? Is there somebody’s work you read first thing in the morning on a regular basis?

Rapoport: To my surprise, I find myself spending more and more time with Sports Illustrated these days. The magazine has gone through a number of changes–it’s over-the-top concentration on the NFL drives me crazy sometimes–but some of the articles they do are very strong. They have fine writers and good ideas and I enjoy reading it.

Can you think of a few of recently published articles – game stories, features, Q&As, columns, etc. – that caught your eye for their quality, originality and substance?

Rapoport: Well, SI recently did a piece on how major league baseball reacted to a con-man who suggested a pitcher for the Pirates was throwing games. It turned out the guy was an old high-school buddy of the pitcher’s and they’d had a falling out. MLB turned it into World War III–it sounded like a bad movie–and it was a great story. The recent “Where Are They Now” issue was also very strong.

Is there journalist with more clout or gravitas on a single pro or college reporting beat these days than Peter King on TV, Sports Illustrated and its Monday Morning Quarterback spin-off website?

Rapoport: Probably not, but I’ve got to tell you that as someone who likes pro football and who covered a lot of it, I find that I really can get enough. I know it has a fan base that will read, watch and listen to anything connected with the sport, no matter how ephemeral, but to me a lot of it is noise. The games are fine and good stories about the athletes draw me in. Peter does a great job, no question about that, but it’s not something that really appeals to me.

Which sportswriters and columnists had the biggest influence on your career? And were there a few specific articles or event coverage you remember that made a big impression on you that you read while growing up?

Rapoport: Jim Murray would be at the top of the list, I guess, if only because he made me realize early on that I wouldn’t ever approach his brilliance. Growing up in Detroit, I was really interested in the Tigers, Lions, Pistons, etc., and there was a very fine columnist named Doc Greene I enjoyed. This was when television was in its infancy so newspapers were really important and I liked reading the Detroit News and the Free Press and seeing how the different writers handled their stories.

Can you select five or so favorite/unforgettable on-deadline assignments you’ve had over the years and reflect on them a bit?

Rapoport: If you mean looking-at-your-watch deadlines–the ones where you’re sweating bullets and wondering why you didn’t go to law school–I’d say big fights are as tough as it gets. They start very late and if they’re particularly exciting or result in an upset it can be tough to find something to say very quickly that the TV viewer won’t have seen. I covered Marvin Hagler vs. Tommy Hearns in Las Vegas in 1985 and that was the wildest fight I’ve ever seen–three rounds of two guys just standing there pounding each other. I’m not sure I’d like to go back and look at what I wrote.

But if you mean events where the deadline is just a little more forgiving, I’ve covered my share, I guess. The Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980 will always be No. 1 on my list, but Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at the age of 46 in 1986 a close second and, in no particular order, Kirk Gibson’s epic World Series home run in 1988, Tom Watson’s chip-in at the 1982 U.S Open at Pebble Beach, Nolan Ryan’s first two no-hitters in 1973 and a bunch of stories from six Olympics following close behind.

For aspiring sports journalists or those just starting out in the business, what advice would you give them to achieve success?

Rapoport: My advice would be for them to seek advice from somebody more up to date with the requirements of the job these days. To the extent that anything I could say might help, I’d give the same advice I always have. Aspiring writers should read and they should write. That last part means write for anyone who will let you–high school and college papers, for sure, and local publications, Web sites, anybody who will run your stuff and, hopefully, offer you some ideas about how to make it better. The best writers don’t know how to take no for an answer. If, like some of us, you simply “have” to write, you’ll find a way.

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Visit Ron Raport’s website: http://rapoports.net/ron/

Some of my favorite sports books

By Ed Odeven

TOKYO (Aug. 27, 2014) — I thoroughly enjoyed Greg Connnors’ Tuesday column in the Buffalo News (http://www.buffalonews.com/columns/mixed-media/sports-books-that-made-their-impact-on-readers-20140826) about favorite sports books. He polled sportswriters and broadcasters, and they provided a nice mix of top selections for Connors’ piece.

Having read the article, I thought it’d be fun to come up with a list of some of my favorite sports books. I’m just listing them, jotting them down as they come to mind and not ranking them.

OK, here goes:

The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream” — Steve Fainaru and Ray Sanchez. (A compelling biography of Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez.)

The Breaks of the Game” — David Halberstam. (Chronicling the 1979-80 Portland Trail Blazers season, Halberstam’s eye for detail and extraordinary reporting give an inside look at the Jack Ramsay-coached NBA team.)

Stolen Season: A Journey Through America and Baseball’s Minor Leagues” — David Lamb. (In 1990-91, Lamb, a longtime news journalist in conflict zones, set out across the U.S. and wrote about the towns and games and characters that comprise the minors.)

The Soul of Baseball – A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America” — Joe Posnanski. (The Negro League icon shares timeless wisdom and stories of his decades-long life in baseball throughout 2005 with the award-winning columnist)

Everything They Had – Sports Writing From David Halberstam” – edited by Glenn Stout. (This anthology features essays, columns, longform reporting spanning six decades; an excellent mix of the late journalist’s legendary work.)

Heaven Is A Playground” – Rick Telander. (A compelling look at New York City summer basketball, circa 1974.)

Pistol – The Life of Pete Maravich” — Mark Kriegel. (Comprehensive autobiography of the basketball legend with remarkable research spilling out on each page. It’s one of the best biographies ever written.)

You Gotta Have Wa” – Robert Whiting. (Rich in anecdotes, funny and with great observations sprinkled throughout … the book sheds light on differences in Japanese and Western culture, using baseball as a prism to tell these tales. A terrific primer for anyone interested in trying to understand Japanese society.)

Branch Rickey: A Life” – Jimmy Breslin. (Less than 150 pages, Breslin’s bio packs a big punch, detailing Rickey’s life mission to end segregation in Major League Baseball and the step-by-step process of bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers.)

Quiet Strength – The Principles, Practices, & Priorities Of A Winning Life” — Tony Dungy with Nathan Whitaker. (The Super Bowl-winning coach’s commitment to excellence on and off the field and his never-wavering Christian faith shine throughout this inspiring book.)

Babe: The Legend Comes to Life” – Robert W. Creamer. (In my mind’s eye, the first sports book I ever read. Babe Ruth’s larger-than-life exploits on the baseball diamond mesmerized me … and they still do.)

The Red Smith Reader” – Red Smith. (A must-read collection of the wordsmith’s work.)

The Fight” — Norman Mailer. (In-depth coverage of the 1974 Muhammad Ali-George Foreman heavyweight boxing bout in Zaire, aka “The Rumble in the Jungle.”

Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” – Thomas Hauser. (A stellar portrait of the boxing icon.)

Ball Four” – Jim Bouton (edited by Leonard Schechter). (With brutal honesty and humor, this tell-all book of the MLB pitcher, using diary notes from the 1969 season and his life in the game, shocked the sports world upon its release in 1970 and made Bouton an outcast within the New York Yankees organization — he didn’t paint a portrait of Mickey Mantle as a god-like figure, but as a human with lousy habits, including playing with the aftereffects of extensive drinking the night before, for instance — and throughout baseball. It was a revolutionary literary project at the time that influenced how sports are viewed and reported on. One book publishing editor, Jeff Neuman, told ESPN.com in 1999, “”‘Ball Four’ is, if not the most famous baseball book, certainly the most important, and in good ways and bad. It changed the expectations of what not only sports books, but sports journalism could be. It created a very different appetite among the fans for inside stories, and especially for inside dirt. It was the first book to pierce the veil of the locker room — and once Bouton started telling these stories, how could the press ignore them any longer? This, in turn, radically changed the atmosphere in locker rooms.”)

Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game” — John Feinstein and Red Auerbach. (Auerbach, the Boston Celtics bench boss through their dynasty years and architect of the team’s winning ways for decades, tells his life story and the NBA’s as the tireless Feinstein, a keen observer, reports it. Fascinating material.)

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber” – Julian Rubinstein. (OK, it’s more than “just” a sports book. It’s an epic story in many ways. Here’s how the author’s website describes the book: “Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is the award-winning saga of Attila Ambrus, a Transylvanian refugee who came to define an era. Born under Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania in 1967, Attila escaped into Hungary underneath a train in 1988, just before the fall of communism. He worked as a gravedigger, an animal pelt smuggler, a zamboni driver, and a (terrible) professional hockey goalie before taking up robbery to make ends meet.”

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization” – Franklin Foer. (Exploring soccer’s ties to political parties, nationalistic rivalries, hooliganism and violence, it provides fascinating details on how the game is represented around the globe.)

Gretzky’s Tears: Hockey, Canada and the Day Everything Changed” – Stephen Brunt. (Wayne Gretzky’s life before and after The Trade that shocked a nation and changed the sport’s landscape, and a ton of details on the decision to send the Great One to the Los Angeles Kings. In a way, it reads like a Shakespearean drama.)

One Knee Equals Two Feet: And Everything Else You Need to Know About Football” – John Madden. (There’s never been a better spokesman/promoter of the game than the former Oakland Raiders coach and TV analyst. This book breaks down how Madden saw the game and explains how and why players excel on the gridiron. With Madden narrating the game, it’s, well, fun, very fun.)

What’s Wrong With Sports” – Howard Cosell. (The broadcasting giant delivers a scathing critique of sports’ biggest problems at the time of this book’s publication in 1991. Drug use, big-time college sports corruption, wealthy owners holding cities hostage to get taxpayer-supported new stadium … these are some of the topics Cosell addresses with the proper moral outrage.)

Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association” – Terry Pluto. (Everything you could possibly want to know about the ABA – and much, much more. The oral history of the league is often stranger than fiction. What a cast of characters!)