This was 2014: On beat writing and the road

The worst part about being a beat writer is the travel. The long and numbing travel. The travel steals nights. The travel siphons away weekends. It strains relationships and frays old friendships, and it turns you into something like a proxy for an unreliable person.

You are not there on a Friday night in October. You are not there on a Wednesday in January. You are somewhere else. You have to be. You are at Hampton Inn in Stillwater. You are at a bar in Morgantown, W.Va. You are at a picked-over, lukewarm continental breakfast in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., fighting with the single mothers and nice-looking grandparents, these grown-ups just trying to piece together an affordable vacation to the Magic Kingdom.

You are working, following the story, covering another game, finding your way in the world. But you are also away, driving through the lonely unknown, wondering if the cost — the lost relationship, the time away from family, the days and months on the road — will be worth it in the end.

***

The best part about being a beat writer is the travel. The long and glorious travel. The travel provides perspective. The travel is freedom. It reconnects you with old friends in San Francisco and Philadelphia, and it fosters new ones at a bar called Sneaky Pete’s in New Orleans. The travel means an extra night with your brother in the aging house in a gentrified neighborhood in Alexandria, Va.

There’s this old passage in Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”, a book I often tuck into my backpack just because, that I think of quite a lot. It reads:

“I shambled after, as I’ve been doing all my life, after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

The travel is not so much a slow burn; it is more like a slow bleed, an endurance test of nights on uncomfortable pillows, and friendships made, and conversations about life and writing and sports and this shared experience of eating dinner at 11 at night and knowing that we’re all away from something. The game is about to begin, and the media room is sterile and cold, and there is free pizza over in the corner of the room, and together we are here, flying through the lonely unknown, waiting for the next deadline. Waiting for the next trip home.

***

Going through airport security sucks. I think we can all agree on that. People generally lose any sense of politeness or patience while going through an airport security line. The TSA man yells the same instructions a million times in a row. The uncomfortable middle-aged lady is not sure if she must remove her shoes. The mother with three young children looks stressed and worn down.

The man in the business suit sees the last plastic bin, and your eyes meet just before he sees that you see it, too. (“Wait, that’s the last bin to put my laptop in? We shall now fight to the death.”)

If you spend enough time in airports, the security line can start to feel like an efficiency test, an obstacle course of wits. You empty your pockets into your carry-on. You slide your computer into a bin. You slide your shoes into your backpack. (Quicker that way; more efficient). Sometimes, they even make you slide off your belt. (Seriously, what the hell is that about?) You move quickly and quietly. You know the drill. You have this down to a science. You see the same faces from the TSA. You hear the same directions. See that man shouting: “MAKE SURE YOU HAVE NOTHING IN YOUR POCKETS!!” I know him. He was shouting that last week.

In another life, maybe I could ask him about his fantasy football team or something.

On a Wednesday morning in November, you are in the Indianapolis airport. It is 6:30 a.m., and you have slept for three hours, and you would like to text a friend, but it is too early. You think about these people, working in an airport all day, with this horde of disgruntled passengers, all travel-stressed and weary, and you wonder:

I wonder what they go home to.

***

Here is the last year: In the span of 12 months, I watched Joel Embiid become a lottery pick on a winter night in Ames, and I watched Andrew Wiggins score 41 points on an afternoon in West Virginia. I was there to watch Kentucky and Wichita State play a classic in downtown St. Louis, and I was there when Kansas fell flat against Stanford in the same building.

I was in Augusta in April, when a 20-year-old Jordan Spieth captivated the Masters, and I was in Norman in November, when a freshman running back named Samaje Perine rushed for a gazillion yards on an overmatched Kansas defense.

I watched high school basketball stars in Chicago, and NBA Draft hopefuls in Brooklyn, and I watched a couple of struggling young baseball players hit extra-inning homers in Anaheim in early October. I watched forgettable football games in Lubbock and Durham and Waco, and I watched vaguely more memorable basketball games in arenas in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Austin.

On the final night of September, I saw the Kansas City Royals, down four runs with five outs left, come back against Jon Lester and the Oakland A’s while a beautiful city celebrated its first playoff victory in 29 years. Three weeks later, I watched Madison Bumgarner become a legend in San Francisco while Steve Perry screamed the words to, “When the Lights Go Down in the City”.

It was, as some might say, a pretty good year.

But when your life consists of going to sporting events and typing words onto a computer screen, invariably, people always have the same question: What’s that like?

The simple answer, of course, is that it’s amazing. There is sometimes free food, and usually a warm seat, and there is always an empty Microsoft Word file staring back at you. But in specific terms, it’s always harder to explain.

My friend Mark has a good theory about journalism — and sports reporting in general. In some ways, being a journalist is essentially a fake job. You spend your days writing about other people, and depending on the day or story, your work has varying degrees of importance.

But Sports Journalism, or whatever that means these days, can feel even weirder.

To work in sports, of course, is to have a fake job, an occupation born from an industry that was constructed around a child’s game. So, yes, there are nights in the press box when the whole exercise can feel like a lesson in fakery. You are writing about sports. You are writing about games that often come down to randomness and chance. You write about what happened on the third down. You wonder why the star player had a bad night. You search for the moment that people will remember.

You are a sports reporter, a fake job dedicated to the ideal of covering another fake job.

It’s more than that, of course. It really can be so much more. So you follow the next story. You cover the next game. You meet old friends in unfamiliar cities. You hop on a train to spend a day with a friend. You hate the travel, but the travel is you. So you shamble through the lonely unknown, chasing the center light across the sky, hoping that the cost — the lost relationship, the time away, the days and months on the road — will be worth it in the end.

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