A Final Look
I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen Roger Clemens naked.
From Fenway Park to the Crooked Stick Golf Club, from The Garden to The Stadium to the St. Paul Civic Center, from Cleveland to East Rutherford to South Williamsport to Orono, sportswriting has taken me places I had only dreamed of.
I've stood shoulder to shoulder with Drew Bledsoe and shot the breeze with Ken Griffey, Jr. I've had lunch with Sandy Alomar Jr.'s girlfriend and done shots with Laura Davies in a Vermont bar. I've worked in the pits for Michael Waltrip and shaken the hand of Goose Gossage. I've interviewed Roberto Baggio one-on-one and pissed off Bill Parcells.
I've done radio shows throughout the Northeast and been recognized on the T. I've even had kids ask me for my autograph.
In the last four years, I've lived a life most kids can only dream of. For this, I can only thank Pete Rosenthal '92.
Pete was the sports editor when I walked into this building as a freshman, my interest in journalism strong but unfocused. He sold me on sports with a stirring speech about the joys of covering college sport at its highest level (in sportswriting circles, this is known as the "free stuff" speech) and promising me the men's basketball beat in the winter.
In retrospect, his spiel was a load of sugar-coated manure, but it sure tasted sweet. I nibbled, and he played me like the tuna I was.
Pete immediately put me to work on a men's soccer story. The team had just returned from a tournament at UNLV (UNLV!) and the coach pumped me full of propaganda on how he thought Jason Luzak '93 should be considered an All-American (All-American!!) while we sat under the program's enormous NCAA trophies (National Semifinalists in 1987!!!).
Overwhelmed by exclamation points, I finished my comp in a record four weeks. I covered the women's soccer team and chronicled its spectacular run to the ECAC tournament.
And then reality hit, disguised as the as-promised men's basketball team (slogan: wait 'til next year to the 92nd power). And I found out why Pete could promise the beat to me so easily. The team stunk. It always stinks, but that year it stunk real bad. The team started out 0-11 and finished 6-20, including a 100-62 loss to Division III Babson.
Instead of exclamation points, there were question marks. And I turned bitter at this betrayal.
Reputations come and go, but some are unshakable, and the day I tagged Eric Carter '93 with, the nickname "The Human Foul" was the day I chose the path of the journalistically righteous and publicly despised.
Carter was a backup power forward whose talent for the game was matched only by his ability to speak Swahili. His principal contribution to the men's basketball team consisted of assaulting opposing players near the basket. I stand by the moniker. But Carter's friends found the phrase hilarious, and all day they greeted Carter with "Hey, how's it going, Human Foul?" and "Yo Foul! What's up?"
Naturally, Carter wanted to meet me, preferably alone in a dark alley. Naturally, I wanted to avoid this. Fortunately for me, the better part of valor won, although Carter never spoke to me again.
What Pete didn't tell me that first day is that writing sports at Harvard is a nightmare on par with anything the Apostles could dream up in the Book of Revelations. Writers spend the majority of their waking hours running after athletes who are not always keen on sharing experiences and composing articles for a student body which is at best uninterested. (Anybody who is that interested in Harvard sports is already working here.) I've noticed that most Harvard students take their sports news in 40-point Utopia; any headline smaller than that is generally forgotten within 15 minutes.
To make matters worse, The Crimson is often the bearer of bad news. The Harvard football, baseball and men's basketball teams are at best pathetic and the men's ice hockey team has disappointed in the last few years. As a result, The Crimson is stuck with a message no one wants to hear and in fact one which many people don't want to be heard.
To make matters even worse than that, The Crimson's staff is often young and inexperienced. In the course of producing a sports page six nights a week, reporting errors are committed. These unforgivable lapses are remembered by athletes who suddenly have memories like elephants the next time a reporter goes after a story.
Pete never told me any of this. For this I can now thank him. If he had, he would have sent me running to a career of badgering Jeremy Knowles and the endlessly frustating Ahhchie Epps. Give me the predictable Tim Murphy and the hypersensitive Billy Cleary any day.
As it was, I got to discover the rest of the ugly truth on my own. Which was:
Not that all Harvard sports teams are bad. There are many which are good--and a few which are legitimately great--but they tend to be the minor ones. The Crimson aggressively promotes the successes of Harvard men's and women's soccer, men's and women's squash, women's lacrosse, women's basketball, men's lightweight crew and softball, only to see the same studied indifference from the student body and the same kvetching from the athletes.
Pretty bleak stuff. "The Human Foul" crack was a cry for help, a plea for attention that went unheeded. As time passed, my glasses turned to jade.
During football season sophomore fall, I started to write honkers like: "The fourth quarter [against Columbia] degenerated into a `qui es mui macho' contest over which team could shoot itself in the foot with the bigger gun." Or: "The first three Cornell scores were virtual gifts from St. Restic and his 45 reindeer." Suffice it to say these statements didn't play well in Mather, Currier and Kirkland (Where Intelligence Is Just Another Big Word) Houses.
I needed a new perspective. Thankfully, summer hit and I caught on with The Boston Globe.
If you've never sat in the Fenway Park press box on a summer night with the windows wide open, the breeze in your face, a Coke in one hand and a pencil to keep score with in the other, well...
Have you ever felt the warm Iowa night air touch your skin as Shoeless Joe shouts his timeless query at Ray Kinsella before disappearing back into the corn? Have you ever imagined yourself in darkened Knights Field, watching Roy Hobbs round third base? Do you share the certainty that Crash Davis will make it to The Show as a manager?
It's like that.
High over the hallowed grass of Boston's most famous landmark, I began to separate my love for sports--be it as a spectator or participant--from my job as a sportswriter. I could be both the passionate fan and jovially clinical chronicler. Boom: perspective. For the first time, I began to savor the moments. This is the turning point in any sportswriter's career. One cannot survive in this business as a fan; the job simply saps the spirit.
For instance: Until I became a sportswriter, I would not believe one could root against a Red Sox comeback in the bottom of the ninth. But when deadline looms and the Sox open the inning with back-to-back singles, I've prayed for the double play. The triple play, even better. The dramatic finish is the enemy, because it requires rewriting the first half of the story. The best baseball games are 6-2 snoozers with all of the scoring early, because one can write the entire story by the time the game is over.
I made these peaces with myself. Mild schizophrenia never hurt anyone.
And there were times when I found a companion on this trail of madness. When new ballplayers came up from the minors, for instance, I always talked to them. "What's it like to be here?" I wanted to know. "A dream come true," they said. The thing is, "a dream come true" is such a banal cliche that it pains me to type it. But when two rookies in a room of veterans have this conversation, the meaning is sky-blue clear. It is a shade unreal.
It made returning to campus pretty easy in the fall. I no longer lived other people's battles. Which meant that when the baseball team went 10-26 this past season, I could simply shrug and wish them better luck next time.
Which I do.
I've followed Harvard sports more closely--along with fellow soldiers Tarek, Jay, Ted, Sean, Amanda, Peter, Darren and Dave than anyone not drawing a salary since I've been here. I've discovered their beauty when compared to the outside world, thanks to Pete who let me discover them on my own rather than try and hammer them into my head.
To come back to Harvard is to return to a simpler athletic time. The genius of Harvard athletics is in its purity and innocence; in the pretense that playing hard on the field is the most important thing and that winning is not the bread and butter but the carrot and stick.
This we all know.
Yet by far, my most memorable Harvard sports moment involved one of the few times Harvard squirms into the limelight each year. Flash back to the finals of the 1993 Beanpot, Harvard against hated Boston University, when then-freshman Tripp Tracy put on a goaltending show worthy of the pros in the most exciting hockey game I've ever seen. Harvard won--I forget the score, but I'll look it up someday.
After the game, the city newspapers all made fun of Tripp's name. How preppy. How Grosse Point (or Scarsdale or Winnetka). How snooty. How Harvard.
The response is pretty simple: Yep. Because when you think about it, that's all they can really make fun of.