As a white male who writes about sports for a living, it is required by law that I listen to Jason Isbell. It’s a bizarre edict, I know, but it’s true. Look it up.
Two years ago, Isbell released Southeastern, a collection of introspective songs about the songwriter’s tangles with substance abuse, love and loss and all that other hard life shit. The result was a critically acclaimed album and a resurgent career — Isbell had written a deeply confessional work that sounded good, sold well and, yes, became a mainstay on the playlists of sportswriters across America.
At the time, Isbell was not necessarily a newcomer to this specific genre; in his early days, he was a trusted member of Drive-By Truckers, a young musical savant who wrote the song “Outfit”, a fantastic southern rock track about fathers, sons and the slow, painful emasculation of work. But Southeastern was something different, a master work on storytelling and blue-collar themes, thrusting Isbell into the space generally reserved for BRUCE!, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam.
Jason Isbell is Sportswriter Music.
I am not sure why white, 30-something sportswriters are so attracted to Isbell’s music, just as I’m not sure why every white, middle-aged portswriter loves BRUCE! I mean, sure, I have some theories. But it remains a curious phenomenon, in part because the answer seems obvious, in part because I think it says something about the way sportswriters see themselves.
This is a story about Topgolf, an old neighborhood and why suburban sprawl kind of sucks. So yes, consider this a warning of sorts.
Last week, a Topgolf, one of those shimmering golf palaces of suburbia, opened in the neighborhood where I grew up. This sucks for a number of reasons, and not totally because Topgolf sucks — it sort of does, but sort of doesn’t — and I will explain all this in a moment. But first, let’s start at the beginning.
If you are not familiar with Topgolf, it’s this (relatively) new suburban golf craze in which people huck down tons of cash to hit golf balls and/or drink beer in a climate-controlled environment. It’s sort of like golf meets bowling, but not really. It’s more like a driving range had a three-way with a Buffalo Wild Wings and a Dick’s Sporting Goods, and it produced some monstrous thing to plant somewhere in the land of big-box stores. Again, this is not to disparage Topgolf. I’ve heard great things.
Topgolf centers, though, define suburban sprawl in a way few things can, in part because they take up a lot of fucking space, and in part because they are ridiculously garish.
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.
I’ve been a Royals fan for all 27 years of my life and until Friday sometimes it felt like all I had to show for it was this lousy t-shirt.
OK, it’s actually a jersey. I have a few other Royals t-shirts, too, ones of Mark Teahen, David DeJesus and Jeremy Affeldt that I got for free back during the “T-Shirt Tuesday” giveaways of 2006 and 2007. This jersey, however, didn’t come for free. I received it as a birthday gift in 2003. My parents got it personalized on Eastbay for me so I could walk around displaying my love of the Royals through my favorite player at the time: (gulp) Angel Berroa. Continue reading →
“I’ve seen some flops in my day. If they get the call, you actually got to kind of give them a little slow-clap for it, because it’s tough to do.” — NFL defensive end Jared Allen on flopping in the NFL, NFL Films
By now, you know what happened. It was Sunday in Brazil, and in the final minutes of a 1-1 match, the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben dribbled along the end line and cut inside on his left foot.
Mexico’s Rafa Marquez stuck his right foot into the play, missed the ball, and caught Robben’s toes with the slightest of trips at close to full speed.
Robben, of course, went flying into a theatrical dervish. The Netherlands earned a penalty in an eventual 2-1 victory. And Twitter nuclearized into a storm of moral outrage and diving jokes. I know this, of course, because I was on a flight somewhere over middle America, following the game on Twitter. For nearly two or three minutes — maybe shorter — I had no idea what had happened. All I could do was feverishly hit refresh. Robben dived. It was egregious. And how can you ANYONE enjoy a sport where a game can end like THIS?
“Just when I start to love you, soccer,” tweeted an American sports scribe who shall go nameless, “you go and pull some crap like that. Garbage.”
There was more.
Anyway, you get it.
After the game, Robben admitted to diving — but not on THAT play. (He had actually committed a REAL dive, he said, in the first half.) The Mexican coach, as he is prone to do, lost his mind, ripping the referee. And we were treated to the usual debate about diving in soccer and the predictably annoying American reaction to said diving.
But I think something always gets lost in these back-and-forths, lost in all the noise, something that is right there in front of us. We are often told that diving is unsportsmanlike and un-American; that it is soft and unsavory and, for lack of a more nuanced word, stone-cold cheating. Diving is the thing — among many things — that keeps the casual American fan at arm’s length from the beautiful game. That’s one narrative, anyway.
But there’s something about these debates that always feels misguided. Yes, nobody likes flopping. Nobody likes the idea of a player taking a truly dishonest dive — especially one that could sway the game. Well, nobody, except Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and receiver Hines Ward, who were once captured by NFL Films clip, gleefully celebrating a bit of simulation from Ward.
“Like Danny Ainge,” Tomlin yelled, “taking a charge!”
“That’s a Vlade Divac,” Ward said.
That’s the segment from NFL Films. You have to wait a bit to get to Tomlin and Ward, because, well, there’s are lot more Robbens in the NFL than you might believe. Over-exaggerating calls might not be a major fabric of the NFL culture, but it is certainly there, and apparently even hard-asses such as Jaren Allen can appreciate it.
It’s interesting, of course, that Tomlin and Ward used NBA players as their flopping role models. But maybe not that interesting. We’re guessing Ward and Tomlin don’t watch a lot of Serie A, and the NBA has had issues with flopping for years, trying to legislate the practice out of the game.
But the real question, and one that I’ve been thinking about for the last 24 hours, is this: When is it DIVING and when is it selling a call? And can we talk about this in a way that’s slightly more nuanced than ripping an entire sport after a heady play from a world-class forward in the final seconds of a great match.
Robben was tripped at close to full speed in the penalty box, and he sold the call with a slightly hilarious flourish. And given all the evidence, he should have. So what’s wrong with this?
When Nets guard Paul Pierce was a young player in Boston, he regularly led the NBA in drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. A reporter asked him about this once, and he responded with a line that was equal parts funny and brilliant. What was his secret? Well, when Pierce met a defender at the rim, he would often scream: “AHHHHH!!!!!”
This happens in all sports, of course. Punters flop on the ground, and college basketball fans rip Duke for taking too many soft charges, and in a very distant cousin to flopping, baseball hitters theatrically leap out of the way of borderline inside pitches, a visual cue to the umpire: That was definitely not a strike.
This is what Robben did yesterday. He provided a visual cue — one that even Kobe could appreciate.
And then there is LeBron James, arguably the greatest athlete in the world. LeBron is about 6-foot-9 and 380 pounds, so you would think he could survive a little contact here and there. But during his first decade in the NBA, James has gained a slight reputation for milking calls.
Really, you say? Yeah, really.
But here’s the thing about LeBron. In nearly every one of these “flops”, there was some sort of contact and some sort of foul. But that didn’t stop James from exaggerating the contact — just as it didn’t stop Robben. Most of those exaggerated fouls on James, of course, didn’t decide a game. But sometimes, of course, they do.
And so here we are. The World Cup continues. Netherlands moves on. And more players will try to win calls in the penalty area. And perhaps Robben, a paper-machete striker who looks like he’s 47, is not the best poster-child upon which to build a diving defense.
Nobody likes a phony. People hate the real DIVING in the NBA and NFL, too.
But for the past 24 hours, I’ve been thinking about Robben and his final play. And amidst all the noise, jokes and ethnocentric soccer hate, it seems pretty clear: What’s more American than a little bit of selling?
The sidewalks were empty. The sun was luminous, reflecting off the Charles. The humming of traffic echoed off the concrete and against the exterior of Fenway Park.
It was a Thursday in April, three days after the bombs went off, and I decided I needed to run through Boston. I had arrived in town on Wednesday, to see a girlfriend, a vacation scheduled weeks before the annual marathon. But as I laced up my running shoes for a jog from Cambridge, just near MIT, to Back Bay, where the bombs had ripped through the finish line, the man hunt was still on.
I don’t know why, but running felt like the right thing to do. Whenever I hit a new city, I always like to explore with a pair of running shoes. You can feel the pulse that way; you can feel the way the neighborhoods connect, the way people live and work in a great American town.
So yes, I wanted to see Boston, to feel the sidewalks underneath my feet, to feel the remnants of the marathon. But mostly, I just wanted to see how the city was surviving.
I went to Boston last weekend because I wanted to see the marathon the year after.
Marathons have environments that defy logic. I’ve seen them in St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas and now Boston. To think: An event that considers its origin the death of a Greek messenger sharing the good news of a battle is equated with a party. But it’s true. Marathons have evolved from the necessity of Pheidippides, to the straight-business approach of most of the twentieth century, to block parties full of behavior that would be considered odd in about every other circumstance. Continue reading →
The bar’s shipment of PBR had not arrived, and I really didn’t know what to order. And they didn’t have Coors Original, either. So the top two beers I am most likely to drink were not options.*
*I know these beverage choices could not sound more hipster, but I promise I was drinking PBR before I knew any hipsters did. …AND I also realize that saying you did something before someone else or being in hipster denial are the most hipster traits one can possess. Damn it.
Resultantly, on Wednesday night, I spent a solid minute looking at a list of beers that might as well have been written in Farsi because I knew nothing about the selection in front of me. I settled on what may have been a seasonal Sam Adams beer but pretty much just wanted to tell the waitress to pour anything of amber tint in a glass (except for the famous Sochi water) and I’d be happy. And I got to thinking, (and when I get to thinking, I often get to writing sprawling blog posts, so here we are): I have no clue how to differentiate beers and I don’t even have a preference for different tastes. Continue reading →
For as long as I can remember, my dad always answered the phone the same way:
It was his signature, the emphasis put on the second syllable. “Frank-DODD!” From rotary phone (our house had one), to the years we installed a second line to appease my older sister (early 90s!), to the black car phone my dad installed on the floor of his 1985 Mercury Grand Marquis, it was always the same: “Frank DODD!”
These days, it’s an iPhone.
You should see it. My dad can do many things on his new iPhone. He can check Facebook, and “favorite” my Tweets on Twitter, and he can fire off a group text to his four kids. On Tuesday night, my dad’s 70th birthday, I was sitting courtside at the Baylor-Kansas game in Waco when the latest text buzzed in.
“KU was in control all the way,” my dad texted. Baylor should be better!!!!”
But for every tech upgrade, for every new year and every new phone, my Dad has always answered the phone the same way: “Frank DODD!” There is something friendly about it, something honest, simple and helpful
The car accident was actually the perfect welcome to India. About ten or fifteen of us, fresh off the plane and jetlagged from twenty hours of travel, boarded a bus for a ninety minute ride from the Kochi Airport to the hotel in Thrissur. It was inescapable to not quickly notice that we would experience an eventful ride. Continue reading →