An engaging conversation with sports columnist Mark Whicker

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 15, 2017) — Distinguished sports columnist Mark Whicker has written about Japanese golfer Hideki Matsuyama, the Super Bowl, Pac-10 hoops, the NFL’s Rams, legendary announcer Dick Enberg, the upcoming World Baseball Classic, horse racing and, of course, boxing, among other topics in recent weeks.

In other words, Whicker writes about pretty much everything in the sports world. And he does so with style, while being consistently informative and with a curiosity that has no limits.

These days, the North Carolina native is an authoritative voice for the Los Angeles News Group, which includes the Los Angeles Daily News and Orange County Register. He was a staple of the Orange Country Register’s sports section for nearly 30 years, and his memorable coverage of boxing has included many of the marquee fights since the late 1970s.

Among Whicker’s top honors from his decades in the news business is the 2015 Nat Fleischer Award, presented by the Boxing Writers Association of America for excellence in boxing journalism.

Early in his career, Whicker paid his dues and learned the skills of his craft from time spent writing, starting in 1974, at the Winston-Salem Journal in his home state, then the Dallas Times-Herald, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (1978-82) and Philadelphia Daily News (1982-87) before joining the Orange Country Register in 1987.

Whicker garnered respect from his peers during his time in Philly. In 1986, Dick “Hoop” Weiss, also of the Philadelphia Daily News at that time, wrote: “Whicker is a guy who grew up on Tobacco Road and has combined excellent writing skills with unusual insight. He’s the one person I defer to in our city.”

In a recent interview, Whicker provided insights on his career, changes in the media landscape, favorite assignments, most difficult assignment, and a magazine he read voraciously as a junior high school student, etc.

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What fires you up the most about having the opportunity to write columns for a living?

I enjoy the variety of the job, the fact that I get to experience all sports on many different levels. I still enjoy the interviewing and the games themselves, and getting to know different athletes and finding out their stories.

Is there a particular story or series of articles that you consider the top work you’ve done during your journalism career? If so, why? Or do you have pride more in the hallmark of your work: consistently thought-provoking commentary?

If I had a favorite story it would be in 2008, when it appeared Obama might win the election. I arranged an interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who grew up during the Civil Rights era. He talked about how much he wished his dad were alive to see this, and he relayed some anecdotes about growing up in the ’60s. Then we ran the story on the day after the election. Fortunately Obama won or I would have to write about something else.

What’s the biggest scoop of your career?

Since I’ve been a columnist for so long I’m not sure I ever really had a “scoop,” or an exclusive story that wouldn’t have appeared otherwise. I had a few minor scoops when I was the beat man for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1979-80.

Who is the most demanding editor you’ve worked for? What made, or makes, him or her so demanding?

I’d say Greg Gibson (a former OC Register sports editor) was the most demanding and also the best sports editor I had. He just expected everybody to perform at a certain level and had good leadership qualities.

What’s the most difficult article you’ve ever written? What made it a bona-fide challenge?

I was in Philadelphia when the Flyers goalie, Pelle Lindbergh, died in a car wreck. I went to Sweden to cover the funeral and do a story on his background. There were a lot of unknowns involved, and I had a lot of people to track down, but fortunately it worked out well.

Were there a handful of columns or articles filed on a tight deadline that were the most exhilarating that you’d elevate above the others?

I think all World Series games at night were that way. I remember in 2001 writing about the series of Yankees’ comebacks wins over Arizona at home, while the city was still grieving over 9/11. I also remember writing about Ben Johnson’s 100-meter sprint victory over Carl Lewis at the world championships in Rome in 1987, which turned out to be a deadline write for us.

In newspapers, what do you miss most about the “good old days”? What do you miss least about the work of, say, 25 years ago?

I miss the clacking of the typewriter and the more relaxed access we had to athletes. But I think the writing itself is superior to those days, and so is the access to information.

What do you like most about the job in 2017? What is your least favorite aspect of it now?

I enjoy the Internet and the fact that we can expand upon things after print deadline. I miss the press box camaraderie we used to have. Fewer writers seem to be enjoying themselves.

Who are 4-5 of your journalism heroes? Why do you hold them in high esteem?

Red Smith, Edwin Pope, Larry Merchant, Peter Gammons when he was a Boston Globe baseball beat writer. All had original ways of looking at things and a real feel for writing. There are others, of course.

When did you know, at what age, that you wanted to pursue a career in newspapers? Was there a local newsman whose work really got you interested in journalism? Or your love of sports and writing in general?

I knew it probably in junior high school. I enjoyed writing and loved sports. Every Friday I would wait eagerly for Sports Illustrated to come to the mailbox and read it immediately.

What are essential ingredients of quality journalism?

Curiosity, accuracy, versatility, organizational ability, and listening ability, especially in interviews.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a newspaper man about the craft of journalism over the years?

It never hurts —and often helps —to make one more call.

Is the 2015 Nat Fleischer Award the biggest honor of your career? And what does the award mean to you?

It means a lot because I love boxing and the award is voted upon by the former winners, all of whom I respect. But I don’t write to win awards.

For your own reading enjoyment, who are a half dozen or so must-read sports journalists today? For each of them, why are your fond of their work?

I like Mike Sielski in Philadelphia as a columnist, Sally Jenkins in Washington. Columnists are being kicked to the curb in a lot of places. And a guys like Patrick Reusse in Minneapolis, Cam Cole in Vancouver and Lenox Rawlings in Winston-Salem are either writing less or have retired. Chuck Culpepper in Washington has been a great writer for a long time.

What’s the quirkiest column you recall writing? What made the subject matter so unique?

When I worked in Philadelphia I was in Rome for that track meet and wrote a column putting everything in a sportswriter perspective. For instance I wrote about the Colosseum and said I always loved the old ballparks, and wrote about the late Emperor Vermillius (Dick Vermeil) and his quote about “It’s my way or the Appian Way.” Just kinda silly, but some people liked it. I’ve never been concerned about whether everybody gets the joke.

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A few short ones…

Will the Chargers be a big draw from the get-go in Los Angeles?

I don’t think they’ll draw from the beginning, but they’re playing in a 30,000-seat arena, so they won’t have to draw much.

What about the Raiders in Las Vegas?

The Las Vegas thing has gotten shaky lately, but if they do get the dome built I think the Raiders will be a success. For one thing they’ll get a lot of fans flying in from Oakland and LA.

What are seven adjectives that immediately come to mind to describe Donald Trump?

Impulsive, immature, flamboyant, entertaining, vindictive, untruthful, energetic.

Your favorite sports book? Non-sports book?

Ball Four. Bonfire of the Vanities.

Favorite sports movie? Non-sports movie?

Hoop Dreams. Dr. Strangelove.

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Follow Mark Whicker on Twitter: @MWhicker03LANG

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