‘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/