Hot-Seat Sportswriting

PERHAPS nowhere has television had a greater impact on print journalism than in the coverage of sports. With TV supplying so many pictures, writers have turned heavily toward what they can dig up after the cameras are switched off. This is the forte of locker-room-prowling reporters and columnists, the stars of modern sports pages but potential irritants to those they report on. ``In essence, sportswriters get paid to antagonize. Not on purpose, mind you, but it seems to work out that way,'' writes Gene Wojciechowski in ``Pond Scum & Vultures.''

This perceived and real antagonism accounts for the book's striking title, which draws on two epithets the author has heard used to disparage sportswriters. He is a card-carrying member of the species, employed by the Los Angeles Times, and uses his book to let ``America's sportswriters talk about their glamorous profession'' (the volume's facetious subtitle).

The friction that arises between writer and subject can lead to some pretty belittling remarks. For example, Bobby Knight, the Indiana University basketball coach, has said of sports reporters: ``All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us then go on to greater things.''

As far as Wojciechowski is concerned, writing on sports is a great calling and not the toy-department stuff of journalistic myth. He says that sportswriters simultaneously battle deadlines, travel, fatigue, editors, and ballplayers, yet still manage to enjoy themselves.

The fun, it would appear, partly comes in the retelling of ``war stories.'' Some real dandies have been collected here. These anecdotes shed a fair amount of light on how sportswriters go about their work and what some of the unseen challenges are.

Sweat-inducing deadlines are a major adversary. Because so many games are played at night, reporters must race to make the early editions. ``You look at your watch and the minute hand seems to be doing wind sprints around the dial,'' says Wojciechowski, who once had 30 minutes to file a story on one of baseball's ``most improbable no-hitters.''

Writer's block can be especially galling in the company of feverishly typing reporters. Wojciechowski confesses to faking it sometimes, beginning stories with a gibberish of keystrokes so no one suspects he's ``dying on deadline.'' p. 209

What glamour exists in sportswriting comes largely through the image of reporters occupying choice seats at choice events, where they presumably hobnob with the stars. But for every trip to Wimbledon, Wojciechowski writes, there are 10 to Cleveland.

In this regard, he calls baseball the most demanding of sports. A reporter assigned to a major-league team can spend as many as 180 days on the road, ``a perfect recipe for divorce'' p. 11 but good for access to the players. There is potential for misery in this access, though. Reporters stuck covering teams that quickly drop from contention must ride out the season, writing what amount to extended obituaries.

Unlike movie reviewers, sportswriters don't criticize from afar, Wojciechowski explains. If they pan a performance one day, they suffer the slings and arrows of angered athletes and coaches in the locker room the next. It helps, therefore, to be thick-skinned.

Vengeful players have been known to lock up writers, tear their clothing, and attempt to bully them in various other ways (behavior that can reach its low ebb when female reporters are involved. ``Pond Scum & Vultures'' was written before the brackish Lisa Olson affair that soiled the latest pro-football season, but its attention to the difficulties women writers face makes a timely examination).

Wojciechowski claims he's resorted to clich'e-riddled writing on occasion, but here he is consistently fresh, colorful, and adept in his turns of phrase. At times, the anecdotes seem strung together loosely like kitetails, but the raconteurish verve with which they are told makes for solid entertainment.

The author, unlike some of the deadly serious newsmakers he covers, still sees the fun in sports. But, then, you might expect that from someone who calls not having to wear socks to work a job perk.

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