Decent guy Peyton Manning does a decent thing

Peyton Manning has done an altogether decent thing and even though I am naturally biased when it comes to this particular issue, I think I have a perspective that can hopefully be illuminating.

Here’s what I’m talking about: Manning called a beat writer at the Indianapolis Star to say thanks and goodbye. I just now read that story, and as I type these words, I am still in a state of shock recovery. Not because it was Manning; he has always seemed like a decent guy. And not because the athlete felt he had a relationship with a reporter; that’s common, too.

But it’s because either I’ve never covered someone who liked me enough to do something like that, or because Peyton Manning is one of the nicest guys to become an athlete in the modern age.

I can’t say with certainty such an act is unheard of, but I’ve never heard of it happening. This is mostly because of the complicated nature of the relationship between reporters and their subjects. We are taught not to trust them, and they are taught not to trust us, and there are good reasons for both.

There is a common tension between athletes and sportswriters that goes something like this:

Athlete: “Why do you guys have to be so negative all the time?”

Reporter: “Athlete, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say 90 percent of what I write is overwhelmingly positive.”

Both of them are usually right.

Let’s say a reporter is talking to a veteran point guard about his team’s season. The team is winning, although it is winning in part because this veteran point guard has accepted a reduced role while a younger star has taken control of the team.

The reporter’s budget line looks something like this: Joe Dingleberry, once the Toledo Sphincters’ great hope, is finally on the precipice of an elusive championship. It just took a reduced role to get there. 

Now, this certainly will be a story that makes some perhaps uncomfortable implicit observations — Dingleberry could not get it done. — but the eventual takeaway will be that Dingleberry is a good guy who made a personal sacrifice for the good of the team.

Yet in order to report that story, the reporter is going to have to ask Dingleberry some pointed questions about his role, how he felt about conceding it to a younger star, if he has any regrets about the years before, and so on. That’s the conflict that makes the story interesting.

But to Dingleberry, there is a decent chance he is going to feel like the reporter is merely trying to bait him into saying something inflammatory. He also might feel insulted by some of the questions and begin feeling defensive. This depends on myriad factors, including everything from the physical setting of the interview to the tone of the reporter’s voice to whatever pre-existing relationship the two of them have.

But, generally speaking, it is in the reporter’s interest to get the player to speak humanly and interestingly, and it is in the player’s interest to do the opposite of that.

So in the end, the reporter writes the story and can honestly say it painted the athlete in a positive light, and the athlete can honestly say, “Yeah, but you were poking me the whole time.”

So it’s complicated. We aren’t adversaries, but we aren’t on the same team, either. There is a good bit of confusion about that among the general public. People often assume sports writers are fans of the teams they cover. And I suppose, in most cases, we are more happy to cover a winning team than a losing one. But when it comes right down to it, our identity is not attached to the team the way it is for a fan. To us, this isn’t recreation or entertainment (even though it is often entertaining); it’s work. My former boss Kurt had the best way of putting it.

“I root for me,” he said.

And yet Peyton Manning called a Colts beat writer to say thanks. For what, it’s not entirely clear. It sounded general, like, Thanks for all the work over the years. It was recognition that those two men had gone to work (sort of) with each other every day for many years and that Manning respected Phillip Wilson’s work and their relationship.

That doesn’t mean much on a practical level. Manning can’t give Phillip Wilson a raise. And a journalist is always going to be a little bashful about receiving praise from one of his subjects, because he wouldn’t want it to indicate his coverage hadn’t been objective.

But it sure was nice of him.

A visual tour of the beautiful crumbling Astrodome

Yesterday the Astrodome opened its doors to some local media, who had to sign liability waivers before we walked in. Place is unsafe, they say. What I found was a place that, like a lot of things in Houston, was born in a very specific period, right as we were going to the moon and going to Vietnam, after the first oil boom but before the second, right as the Baby Boomers were hitting adulthood.

The Astrodome was finished 18 years before I was born, so I don’t know what it looked like then, but I got a strong impression not much has changed.

A tour:

The seats are quite comfortable for a building built in the 60s, but they're all cracked. Sitting in the Astrodome feels and smells like sitting in an old car that's been sitting in a dusty garage for many years.

The seats are quite comfortable for a building built in the 60s, but they're all cracked. Sitting in the Astrodome feels and smells like sitting in an old car that's been sitting in a dusty garage for many years.

The windows still let the light in. Soon after the dome was built, baseball players complained it was hard to find the ball against those windows, so there is a film over them now.

The windows still let the light in. Soon after the dome was built, baseball players complained it was hard to find the ball against those windows, so there is a film over them now.

Can't remember where this was, exactly. But I assume it to be an original 1965 sign.

Can't remember where this was, exactly. But I assume it to be an original 1965 sign.

Don't think these work anymore, but all these signs have little lights around them that light up like a marquee.

Don't think these work anymore, but all these signs have little lights around them that light up like a marquee.

When we say the Astrodome is crumbling, we mean that literally. Chunks of the building are falling off. It has been deemed unsafe for occupation.

When we say the Astrodome is crumbling, we mean that literally. Chunks of the building are falling off. It has been deemed unsafe for occupation.

Astroturf, you may know, was named for the Astrodome, and this is one of the last places on earth you can still find it.

Astroturf, you may know, was named for the Astrodome, and this is one of the last places on earth you can still find it.

This is the door to a dark room. You know, where they develop film on site. Remember film?

This is the door to a dark room. You know, where they develop film on site. Remember film? One older member of the media said he and somebody else used to come back here for a seventh-inning toke. I couldn't tell if he was 100 percent serious, but this was the 60s and 70s we're talking about.

The press box was actually not that dissimilar from the press box at Minute Maid Park. Older TVs. Otherwise, a press box is a press box is a press box. Except for the one at TCU. Man, that thing is garbage.

The press box was actually not that dissimilar from the press box at Minute Maid Park. Older TVs. Otherwise, a press box is a press box is a press box. Except for the one at TCU. Man, that thing is garbage.

"Welcome to The Show," it says.

"Welcome to The Show," it says.

Just one example of how so many things in the dome are stuck in a very specific period.

Just one example of how so many things in the dome are stuck in a very specific period.

I didn't ask, but those looked like they probably still worked.

I didn't ask, but those looked like they probably still worked.

Carter vs. Permian. Written on the walls in one of the locker rooms. I actually got chills when I first saw this, then realized that 1988 game was played in Austin. This was done for the Friday Night Lights movie in 2004. Nonetheless, it's pretty cool that's still there.

Carter vs. Permian. Written on the walls in one of the locker rooms. I actually got chills when I first saw this, then realized that 1988 game was played in Austin. This was done for the Friday Night Lights movie in 2004. Nonetheless, it's pretty cool that's still there.

There are limitations to my camera phone. Those signs say "Home of the Houston Oilers" and "Home of the Houston Astros."

There are limitations to my camera phone. Those signs say "Home of the Houston Oilers" and "Home of the Houston Astros."

A broken, discarded chair sitting in the tunnel that leads from the locker room to the field. Seemed poignant.

A broken, discarded chair sitting in the tunnel that leads from the locker room to the field. Seemed poignant. By the looks of the label, this was from the Don Draper era.

Funny thing is, there were a lot of copycat stadiums after the Astrodome went up in 1965. SkyDome, Three Rivers, Riverfront, etc. When they started tearing them all down in the late 90s, early 2000s, everybody said they were cookie cutter stadiums. But look at this place. Unmistakable for any other.

Funny thing is, there were a lot of copycat stadiums after the Astrodome went up in 1965. SkyDome, Three Rivers, Riverfront, etc. When they started tearing them all down in the late 90s, early 2000s, everybody said they were cookie cutter stadiums. But look at this place. Unmistakable for any other.

There I am, standing on about the 20-yard line. I can't imagine playing football on that turf. There's nothing to it.

There I am, standing on about the 20-yard line. I can't imagine playing football on that turf. There's nothing to it.

These are the lockers in the Oilers locker room. I was told quarterbacks and running backs would have been in this row. Earl Campbell, Warren Moon. Don't they look ... dumpy?

These are the lockers in the Oilers locker room. I was told quarterbacks and running backs would have been in this row. Earl Campbell, Warren Moon. Don't they look ... dumpy?

Letters to a beat writer

The e-mail:

Mr. Corcoran:
I realize you are the KU sports writer for the newspaper and that is where you allegiances lie, however, I believe that you write for a newspaper that has a great many K-State fans as subscribers.  It is difficult for me to understand why you would list the number of players in the NFL from Missouri, Nebraska and KU and eliminate K-State, especially since they are a Kansas school.  As the official Kansas newspaper, (at lease I think I have read that the newspaper holds that distinction) Kansas schools should come first.  K-State has 20 players currently in the NFL according to the newly released football media guide.  If a school from Kansas had to be eliminated from the article, maybe KU should have been the one eliminated since they have only 13 players in the pros.  Maybe you do not have a copy of the KSU media guide, maybe you did not want to take time to call Sports Information to get the information for your article, or maybe you chose not to include them on purpose in which case you used very poor judgment.

My reply:

(NAME REDACTED),

I have no allegiances. I root for myself and my stories that’s it. I listed the number of NFL players from Missouri because the story was about Missouri. I compared Missouri’s number to Nebraska’s because last season Nebraska won the division in which Missouri plays, and I compared it to Kansas’ number because Kansas is Missouri’s rival.

Not everything is an anti-Kansas State conspiracy.

Tully Corcoran
Kansas beat writer
The Capital-Journal
(785) 295-5652

I should also note that there is no such thing as “the official Kansas newspaper.” That’s really more of a Communist thing.

I don’t necessarily want to be a billionaire (so freaking bad)

I’m not going to get overly analytical here (I promise), but there’s this new song called “Billionaire” by a guy I’ve never heard of named Travie McCoy.

Travie longs to be a billionaire “so freakin’ bad,” which, to his credit, is a pretty ambitious goal for a guy who doesn’t understand adverbs. He also wants to be on the cover of Forbes Magazine with Oprah and the queen. He doesn’t specify which queen, though I suspect it is the Queen of England he yearns to be photographed with (or maybe Perez Hilton), which would make for perhaps the most senseless Forbes cover of all time. But if you were a billionaire, you could probably hook that up.

Anyway, this song prompted me to ask myself how freaking bad I want to be a billionaire, and it turns out the answer is “not all that freaking bad.”

Like pretty much everyone else, I’d love to have, like, a lot more money. I mean, if I made 10 times more money, I’d still be solidly in the middle class. One hundred times more money would be awesome. I think becoming a millionaire, while highly unlikely, seems attainable. We all personally know a handful of millionaires. It’s not that unusual. Granted, approximately none of them are journalists, but that isn’t the point, here.  The point is, I do want to be a millionaire, and don’t we all.

Being a billionaire, though, is just not something I’ve ever thought about for the same reasons I’ve never considered whether or not I wished to be the Queen of England. Also, I am completely certain that at some point well shy of a billion dollars, I would lose interest in making more money. If I had $600 million, I don’t think getting to $700 million would be much of a motivating factor. I would already own the Kansas City Royals, and there would already be 80s glam metal bands playing in centerfield between innings*. The money would have to start chasing me, perhaps literally.

*This is my brother-in-law Jason’s idea.

So this is a goofy song, but something tells me it wouldn’t be a hit if it was called “Millionaire.”

Fun with reader e-mails

Pictured: A reader of mine.

Pictured: A reader

In Saturday’s paper, I wrote this column suggesting the Big 12 redraw its divisional lines, from North-South to East-West. I wrote it as a response to Kansas’ sixth-consecutive Big 12 championship, on the basic premise that KU has an advantage in the conference race because it plays Iowa State, Colorado and Nebraska a combined six times, while the South division teams only play them three times.

Going East-West would make the league more balanced.

I expected people to disagree. That’s cool. But what I was not expecting was somebody to read that column and conclude I was a KU homer. I mean, the column was based on the premise that KU has had an unfair advantage for all these years. Agree or disagree, surely you can’t see a pro-KU bias in that column, can you?

That is exactly what happened, from a reader named Kathy.

I have changed nothing about these e-mails, except to redact her e-mail address.

From: Kathy L [mailto:xxxxx@yahoo.com]
Sent: Sun 3/7/2010 9:35 AM
To: Corcoran, Tully
Subject: RE: wow

Man, Tully, where did that come from? Granted, KU is a basketball school and they are good. I had no idea that gives you the right to beat your chest and thumb your nose at us “lesser” teams – I remember teams and parents that did that in middle school when they had a good team and it was just as annoying then, but we just figured they had no class.

I think the fact of the matter is, at least for KSU fans,(and I would guess the other programs you referred to) putting KU in another division would take away easy wins for us in 3 other sports – football, volleyball and women’s basketball (see past 15 years). I guess we have had to just concede men’s basketball in order to have an annual “whipping boy” in other sports – so be it.

And remember, what goes around, comes around – who knows what will happen next year in basketball, or the year after that, etc.

And, if KU is all about national championshps, how many have they won – and how many have they won without major NCAA infractions?

And my response:


From: Corcoran, Tully <tully.corcoran@cjonline.com>
Subject: RE: wow
To: “Kathy L” <xxxxx@yahoo.com>
Date: Saturday, March 6, 2010, 4:18 PM

Man, Tully, where did that come from?

Years of watching Big 12 North basketball and
football.

Granted, KU is a basketball school and they are good.
I had no idea that gives you the right to beat your chest
and thumb your nose at us “lesser” teams – I remember
teams and parents that did that in middle school when they had a
good team and it was just as annoying then, but we just
figured they had no class.

There was no chest beating or nose thumbing, there.
The facts are unavoidable. Iowa State, Nebraska and
Colorado are not competitive with the top tier teams in the Big
12.

I think the fact of the matter is, at least for KSU
fans,(and I would guess the other programs you
referred to) putting KU in another division would take away easy wins for us in 3 other sports – football, volleyball and women’s basketball (see past 15 years). I guess we have had to
just concede men’s basketball in order to have an annual
“whipping boy” in other sports – so be it.

With all due respect, when conferences re-align, add
teams, lose teams, whatever, nobody cares about
non-revenue-generating sports, and the only
revenue-generating sports at Big 12 schools are
football and men’s basketball.

And remember, what goes around, comes around – who
knows what will happen next year in basketball, or the year
after that, etc.

We can’t predict the future, of course. I’m sure
Kansas is not going to win six more Big 12 championships in a
row, but the Big 12 has been around since 1996, and, as was the
basis of the column, Kansas has owned it the whole time, in
part because its gets to roll the bottom feeders in the
north six time a year. Re-alignment would make the league more
fair to South teams, who face better competition in their
division.

And, if KU is all about national championshps, how
many have they won – and how many have they won without
major NCAA infractions?

Kansas has won three NCAA titles and two Helms
national titles. KU was on NCAA probation after the 1988 title
and during the 2008 title run. But the point I was making
was that KU’s program and its fans are pretty much always
evaluating their team’s season based on how close it
came to winning the national championship, not the conference
championship.

But I suppose your question was meant to be rhetorical.

Anyway, thanks for reading,

Tully

Here is where the wheels really come off. Try to figure out what Kathy is trying to argue, here.

From: Kathy L [mailto:xxxxx@yahoo.com]
Sent: Sun 3/7/2010 9:35 AM
To: Corcoran, Tully
Subject: RE: wow

So if you were talking about football and basketball
“revenue” your point doesn’t even apply – we (KSU, CU, Nebr)
never got less money for administering severe beatings in
football to KU for many years in a row. It seemed to me that
you were talking about KU not being challenged enough in the
North because they happen to be good at 1 sport.

Anyway, ESPN lists KU’s ratio of national championships to
major NCAA infractions at minus 2, just so you know.

Have a good day

Tag, I’m it.

From: Corcoran, Tully <tully.corcoran@cjonline.com>
Subject: RE: wow
To: “Kathy L” <xxxxx@yahoo.com>
Date: Sunday, March 7, 2010, 4:58 PM
I’m afraid you might not understand
the meaning of the term “revenue generating” in this
context.

The only point I was making about revenue-generating sports
is that they are the only sports that are given
consideration when conferences are formed or re-aligned.
Conferences are about money. Revenue generation in this
context doesn’t have anything to do with the results of the
games, and I never suggested anything like that.

I’m also afraid you disagree with the premise of my column
— that Kansas has dominated the Big 12 in basketball, and
has been especially good against three schools. You may not
like my suggestion for changing that, but to argue against
the premise would be aggressively ignorant.

Good day,

Tully Corcoran
Kansas beat writer
The Capital-Journal
(785) 295-5652

And here comes a response I don’t even know how to answer.

From: Kathy L [mailto:xxxxxx@yahoo.com]
Sent: Mon 3/8/2010 9:28 AM
To: Corcoran, Tully
Subject: RE: wow

Hey, no need to be defensive – I thought you guys were supposed to be impartial…..

I have no idea how either of those points are related. I don’t know why she used a dash instead of a period. I don’t know why there are ellipses on the end. I can understand why she thinks I’m being defensive, but I don’t understand the point about being impartial.

I reply.

From: Corcoran, Tully <tully.corcoran@cjonline.com>
Subject: RE: wow
To: “Kathy L” <xxxxx@yahoo.com>
Date: Sunday, March 8, 2010, 11:388 AM

Let me make sure I understand you.

You think I’m a Kansas fan who wants the Big 12 to make it MORE difficult for Kansas to win Big 12 championships? Is this accurate?

Tully

Derangement

I think this is the first political post in The Cub House. I promise, this will not be a trend.

If you could sit in the sports department at a newspaper and read the e-mails that come in or listen to the voicemails or take the calls, I think you could better understand the above video and politics in general.

This is the nature of humans: We seek like-minded people to form groups with us, we view our group as superior to other groups and we seek to prove this to ourselves by removing from all other groups, especially competing ones, all complexity.

Kansas fans do it. Kansas State fans do it. Democrats do it. Republicans do it.

Example: “K-State fans are just a bunch of hicks who drink Keystone Light and think The Olive Garden qualifies as ‘fine dining.'”

Example: “KU fans are just a bunch of elitist snobs that drink Boulevard Wheat and think they’re too good for Chili’s.”

Example: “All Democrats care about is getting re-elected.”

Example: “All Republicans care about is getting re-elected.”

What Rachel Maddow is pointing out in the above video is that conservatives now are doing exactly what liberals did when George W. Bush was President — rejecting anything he does on the basis that if it’s him doing it, it must be bad, and generally rooting for his failure.

Examples of this are conservative celebrations that Chicago did not get the Olympics and gleeful shots at Obama for winning the Nobel Peace Prize*.

*Probably an unfair criticism, actually, considering Obama himself seems a little embarrassed that he won the thing.

“To be honest, I don’t feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who’ve been honored by this prize,” he said.

I don’t want to say Maddow is not being objective, because what I think she’s saying is fair, but I think she’s coming from a place of attachment that doesn’t allow her to see the big picture when she talks of this derangement syndrome.

“Obama/Bush derangement syndrome” doesn’t exist. Creating a phrase like that implies that this behavior only applies to those two men.

What exists are automotonic people who don’t want to think, but rather be told what to think. And they exist on both sides of the political aisle, and just about everywhere else.

But the best example is sports.

When you consider that sports are utterly devoid of consequence, the passion, blind loyalty and lack of independent thought exhibited within them borders on frightening.

At our paper, the KU-K-State rivalry is the big sports thing. Both sides think we’re biased against their team. It is not uncommon to receive, the same day, e-mails from people saying we don’t cover KU enough and e-mails saying we don’t cover K-State enough. One former sports editor once decided to answer a critic by forwarding him all the e-mail we received from the other side.

The truth is, we go to sometimes silly lengths to make sure we’re devoting equal space to both teams.

But don’t tell that to the guy who called me one day, wondering why the K-State story was on the top of page one and the KU story was on the inside, considering that, “KU is the No. 1 seed and K-State barely got into the tournament.”

“Well,” I told him. “I didn’t lay out the page, but it’s probably because K-State plays tonight and KU doesn’t play until Saturday.”

No amount of logic could get through to this guy. He had decided The Capital-Journal was “printed in purple ink” long ago, and he wasn’t going to let fact or reasoning interfere with that conclusion.

This exact same thing happens in politics. If you’re a card-carrying Republican or a card-carrying Democrat — meaning your political affiliation is a central part of your identity — you’re probably guilty of this and I’m probably not going to be very interested in talking to you about current affairs, just as I don’t care to talk about sports with the myopic fans.

The party system has everything to do with attracting followers and little to do with getting it right. It’s just branding. It’s just fanhood.

So for Maddow to point across and say, “Hey, you’re doing the same thing you accused us of” is true, but also a statement of the obvious.

This Week in SportsIllustrated

Remember when SportsIllustrated used to be awesome?

Well, it isn’t awesome anymore. It is, still, pretty good and sometimes awesome, just not every time. So far as I can tell, it is suffering from ills similar to those many newspapers are suffering from:

  • A reduced news hole because of reduced ad revenue.
  • A staff of lower quality. SI has failed to retain many of its best and most popular reporters and columnists, and I’m not  just talking about Rick Reilly.
  • A misplaced agenda regarding the printed version — it is trying to be a quicker, punchier read while neglecting the thing that made it great in the first place: in-depth, well-reported, well-written stories and columns.

Anyway, this NEW! feature is not intended as a rip feature. Quite the opposite. I’m going to point out, on a weekly basis, what SportsIllustrated did well that week, as a public service to people like me, who have become increasingly discouraged by actually flipping through the magazine.

This week’s cover story

“Cleveland Rocks (No Joke!),” by Joe Posnanski.

Since it has a Posnanski byline, we can assume a couple of things:

1) It will be really good.

2) It will not be overly critical.

This piece is about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ pursuit of an NBA title, set against the backdrop of Cleveland’s disappointing sports history. Since Posnanski is from Cleveland, he wrote it in the first person, which I enjoyed.*

*We often play this little game in print reporting in which the reporter pretends he isn’t part of the story he’s telling by writing it entirely in the third person. Most of the time, this is the best way. There’s no reason to inject yourself into a 18-inch game story from a meaningless college basketball game.

But when you’ve spent a lot of time on something, talking to people one-on-one, and you’re carefully crafting the story not just to inform, but to entertain, move and provoke, in certain cases, it’s probably more true and more transparent to drop yourself in there. Not always, but occasionally, and only in the right hands.

My favorite line: “Municipal (Stadium) was uniquely designed so that no matter how many people attended, every person had a view blocked by a steel beam.”

This week’s back page column

A pretty good idea, executed well by Chris Ballard, who argues that what has happened with Allen Iverson over the last two seasons, especially set against what has happened with Chauncey Billups over the last two seasons, redefines his career.

The gyst is that teams have tended to be better after he left them, and worse after he arrived, which is true, except in the case of the Philadelphia 76ers, who drafted him No. 1 overall in 1996 (although it would have been almost impossible for them to get worse).

It’s not a totally original idea. Point guards have been evaluated that way for years. But I hadn’t seen or heard anyone make that point, exactly, about Iverson. I mean, this guy won an MVP award and took his team to the Finals.

Anyway, it’s a thought-provoking column, which is what any good column is.

This Week’s Space Where Steve Rushin Should Be

An uninteresting Q&A between Dan Patrick and LeBron James. I feel bad ripping this, because I’ve produced some really crappy content in my career, but I also don’t have a page all my own in SportsIllustrated with my face at the top. And I get ripped by readers often enough, I guess.

But if Dan spent more than three hours on this page, from the time he first germenated the idea of, uh … asking LeBron James 14 questions (including, “What’s the next pregame skit you guys are going to pull off?”), to the time he called his friend Bob Costas for a one-liner on Manny Ramirez, I’d be amazed.

Say what you will about Rick Reilly, who has a lot of critics, but I say ESPN easily got the better end of that deal.

I think the best single word to describe Patrick’s “Just My Type” is “uninsightful.”

This particular edition was even worse, because LeBron James is painfully uninteresting as a person, or at least as the person reporters have been able to uncover.

Other stuff

  • In “The Pop Culture Grid,” Carlos Beltran sounds like a doofus. Q: A cougar is … Beltran: “I don’t know what to say.” Q: Last movie I saw in theaters … Beltran: “Wow, I don’t remember.” Thanks, Carlos.
  • A wonderfully concise Wayman Tisale obituary. Got enough of it in there, without getting breathy, as obits sometimes do. No byline.
  • A first-person story by former Colts coach Tony Dungy about his visit to Michael Vick while Vick was in prison in Leavenworth. Dungy wonders if a better upbringing might have kept Vick out of prison. Interestingly, he contrasts it with the upbringing of former K-State quarterback Josh Freeman, whose father recently contacted Dungy about looking after his son. Interesting, but preachy, and 30 percent too long.
  • A story about Michael Phelps’ return to the water after all the weed and stripper controversy. Not a lot of new information there, but it did provide a peephole into Phelps’ psyche, and I liked that the writer did it without going directly to Phelps, who is chronically full of crap.
  • A story by Tom Verducci about Randy Johnson. I didn’t read it.

The Royals are bringing me back

Seriously? Um, yes.

Seriously? Um, yes.

The great thing was Bob Dutton’s lead.

I woke up on a Saturday morning, flipped open my laptop, checked my work e-mail, checked Facebook, checked Gmail, read some fans’ thoughts about C.J. Henry, and then I went to kcstar.com to see what if my competitor on the KU beat, Brady McCollough, had written anything for the Saturday edition.

I still don’t know, because when I clicked the sports tab, there was a photo of Zack Greinke and a cutline describing how awesome he had been Friday night against the Detroit Tigers.

Then I did something I haven’t done in, I don’t know, four years. I clicked on a Kansas City Royals game story. This was Dutton’s lead:

Is this the night, after more than a generation, that baseball truly became relevant again in Kansas City? Maybe. Just maybe.

It’s not a dazzlingly clever or funny lead, but it struck me as perfect. It is the most relevant question he possibly could have explored, and he asked it at the right time. Not too soon, but not after everybody was already talking about it.*

*Perspective like this is part of the the value of a good beat writer, and it is why fans should read their local writers instead of (or at least in addition to) the national outlets. ESPN.com, for example, is just going to run the AP story from that game, which, by design, will be less developed.

I bring this up not just to praise Bob Dutton (who I’ve never met), but to say that the Royals are bringing me back (for the first time).  As I’ve written here before, I don’t care about baseball, and the main reason for that is the Kansas City Royals, who have been an embarrassment for the entire time I cared about sports.

Tonight, I will be at Kauffman Stadium to see Kyle Davies pitch against Zach Miner. This is the first time I can remember that I bothered to look at who was pitching in the game I was going to watch. This sometimes applied even during the game.

And it has almost everything to do with Zack Greinke, who is not only awesome, but also weird. Even if the Royals don’t make the playoffs this year or any year of Greinke’s $38 million contract, it was still a good decision, because they Royals matter now. Thirty-six thousand people turned out last night. It was the kind of decision the Royals haven’t made many times in my lifetime, and the more they make them, the harder they’ll be to ignore.

The top 10 reasons I don’t care about baseball

It gets a quizzical look most of the time, almost like the way a dog cocks its head when you look at it and make a weird noise. People don’t quite understand a normal, red-blooded, nostalgic, T-shirts-and-jeans-wearing, sunflower-seed-chewing American man who doesn’t care about Major League Baseball.

Sometimes, people even act offended, as if, by not liking Major League Baseball, I am not liking them. Or America.

So, today, I explain. The top 10 reasons I don’t care about baseball.

10. Too much parity (on a day-to-day basis).

I don’t like that, on a given day, there is about a 30 percent chance that the best team in baseball would lose to the worst team in baseball. One time in three (I don’t know if that’s accurate, but it feels about right to me). It takes all the excitement out of a Royals win over the Yankees (or whoever).

It’s obviously going to be this way because MLB uses a 162-game season (about 100 games too many), which means that mediocre pitchers are tossing most of those games. If they made it an 82-game season and spaced out the games a little, then the best pitchers could work a greater percentage of the games, thereby improving the overall quality of the game, thereby increasing the relevance of each win.

9. Too numbery.

It’s impossible these days to talk about baseball without it feeling like a conversation about math. I hate math. I blame Bill James for all this.

Pictured: A conversation about baseball.

Pictured: A conversation about baseball.

8. The players are too interchangeable, and too often interchanged.

It’s true that NBA players and NFL players both switch teams often, and for all the same reasons. But when Major League Baseball players change teams, it’s less intriguing because baseball is the most individualized major team sport. It’s almost like subbing in a new sprinter on the 4-x-100 team. You say Manny Ramirez is going to Los Angeles, well then just plug in his numbersnumbersnumbersnumbersnumbersnumbersnumbersnumnersnum

7. Baseball players themselves

They’re jerks.

6. The Kansas City Royals

The truth is, I would probably like Major League Baseball if it weren’t for the Kansas City Royals, specifically the 1994 Kansas City Royals.

Some time in 1993, I became cognizant as a sports fan. I vaguely remember the Final Four that year, and I remember the Chiefs trading for Joe Montana and I remember Joe Montana being a Zeus in my mind. I also remember going to my first Royals game that year, seeing Tom Gordon pitch against the Yankees and believing that I would one day pitch against the Yankees at Kauffman Stadium.

So I’m excited for the 1994 season to begin*.

*There is little doubt that this is incorrect, but this is how I remember the Royals ad campaign for the 1994 season: A highlight package ran as a sort of B-footage for a music video of a guy singing and playing guitar. I don’t remember if the singer ever appeared on screen or not, but my mind does recall a lyric from that song, sung with the oddly placed passion of a Rod Stewart song: “this year, they are playing games.”

I was not yet 11 years old at the time, so there is a great chance I never did know exactly what the man was singing, but that lyric has stuck with me as one of the most unfortunate and ironic pieces of advertising I’ve ever seen. As you know, a lot happened in baseball in 1994, but the one thing that did not happen was the playing of all the games, which was the only thing the Royals were even advertising.

And the Royals were actually pretty good to start the 1994 season, 64-51, actually, before the strike. I remember a lot of talk about Greg Gagne and Gary Gaetti for some reason. Plus, they had David Cone! I was going to be David Cone! And then they pulled the rug right out from under me, right when I first stepped onto it.

In fairness, who wouldnt be excited about this guy?

Other than a neighbor with small children, who wouldn't be excited about this guy?

The Royals have stunk ever since. It’s hard to care about a crappy team.

5. It’s hot outside.

About 30 percent of the time you’re at a Major League Baseball game, you will be physically unfomfortable, and about 80 percent of that 30 percent, there will be nothing happening on the field to distract you from that discomfort.

4. Baseball fans

So far as I can tell, this is the only group of fans who treats its sport like its grandmother’s fried chicken recipe.

You don’t like it? Whaddya mean you don’t like it? This is great stuff, man. How could anybody not love this as much as I do? I do not understand any worldview other than my own.

If you’re a baseball fan, don’t take it personally. I understand that you like baseball, and that doesn’t bother me. I just ask that you take a step back, examine the world around you, and see that there is nothing everyone agrees upon, not even Derek Jeter.

Besides, no group of fans in sports collectively gives less effort than fans at a Major League Baseball game, with the possibly exception of Atlanta Hawks fans.

There are some exceptions.

There are exceptions to every rule.

3. It’s hardly any different than the NBA, but nobody wants to acknowledge this.

Possibly because baseball is dominated by whites and latinos, and for whatever reason we like to imagine whites and latinos as generally hard-working, blue-collar types, and the NBA is dominated by blacks, who for whatever reason we like to imagine as naturally gifted but motivationally stunted, the sports-watching culture at large complains loudly about the lack of effort expended during regular-season NBA games (of which there are 82) and never peeps about the same issue in regular-season Major League Baseball games (of which there are 162), unless Manny Ramirez is involved, and even then, his laziness is painted as charming.

People want to believe that these guys are playing balls out for all 1,458 (or so) innings of the regular season. I just don’t believe that, except in the case of David Eckstein, who actually plays four outs per inning.

MLB is exciting in the playoffs, just like the NBA is, and isn’t in the regular season, just like the NBA isn’t.

2. I didn’t have cable as a kid.

Believe me, if we had TBS, I would have devoured every facial tick of a Greg Maddux game. He was the pitcher I wanted to be. He wasn’t overpowering, but he was cunning and accurate and he would throw pitches four feet off the outside corner and the umpires would call them strikes.

Baseball was my favorite sport to play as a kid, and I would have watched it on TV religiously if I had access to it. But all I had access to were the local broadcats of the Kansas City Royals, who we’ve already discussed. Hipolito Pichardo just didn’t have that same effect on me.

I was 16 the first baseball season we had cable, and by then it was too late to feel the mystique of it all. And I had realized that I could play baseball pretty well without imitating Fred McGriff’s follow through.

1. The Kansas City Royals.

At various stages of life, I have tried to care about the Royals. In 2003, I started to care a little when they had that 15-game lead in their division. They blew it, of course, and that was one thing. But not only did they blow it, they traded away their best player because they didn’t want to pay him what he was worth, which was a pretty loud message to me:

“WE’RE JUST HOPING TO GET LUCKY!”

What? Make the product better? Thats for those crazy big city teams. We just want to survive.

What? Make the product better? That's for those crazy big city teams. We just want to survive.

I tried again last year, although my motivation was slightly different. Since I’m a sportswriter, I don’t really watch college football or college basketball the way fans do. It’s too closely related to work. And one year of covering the Kansas City Chiefs was enough to change the way I feel about the NFL. I don’t want to get into it here, because it’s complex and difficult to understand (that may be another blog altogether), but something happens to you when you cover a team that makes the game taste a little worse. Since I’ve never covered the NBA or MLB, I think it might be fun to have a team to follow. I’ll never be the screaming fan with all the gear on, but I can appreciate the slow-moving drama of a team’s season.

So last year I kind of followed the Royals early in the year. They had some young guys who everybody seemed to think were going to be stars. And they stunk, of course. Again.

Coming of age: Thoughts about service stations and newspapers

Ferguson Service looked just like this.

Ferguson Service looked just like this, right down to the curved front window.

The wrenches would come skidding across the floor like a flat rock on a smooth lake, clanging on the concrete to make a noise not unlike the sound of ice cubes rattling in an empty class, only with a metallic tone to it. When they came to rest, they rang for another second or two.

Delmar Ferguson hated seeing the work pile up, the cluster of cars angled into his small parking lot in downtown Hutchinson, Kansas, indicating that either business was up, or efficiency was down. It was always hard to say.

Delmar, a quick-walking, quiet man in his early 70s, would walk into his shop in his white Amoco shirt — the owner was the only one who wore white — and blue trousers that never quite reached his ankles. The mechanic, Carl Zwyckl, he of the rare all-consonant last name, would invariably be at one stage or another in burning a Marlboro Red — lighting, dangling or flicking — with grease up to his elbows, sweat beading on his shiny forehead and dripping down the chest he always left exposed by one extra button’s worth. His blue, short-sleeved uniform shirt would be smeared with the carnage of a head gasket on a Chrysler, a U-joint on a Silverado, maybe a CV shaft on a Nissan. Sometimes, the cigarette butts littering the shop floor would have little greasy fingerprints on them.

I’d be in the back, fixing a tire. Once a tire was off the rim, and before I put on the glue and patch, I would reach inside the tire and grind away the smoothness of the rubber. Tiny burned specs of warm rubber would fly onto my arms, sticking to the leftover oil from the last water pump job, and I would squint and turn my head to shield my eyes from the spattering gore. Occasionally, a drop of sweat would drip off my nose and land inside the tire. That back room got awfully hot.

On days like this, there was no way we were getting everything done by 6 p.m., which was the kind of thing that irritated Delmar. You could just tell, even though he never said much. So he would walk into his shop, probably after a round of golf he’d played in his white shirt and blue trousers, and without saying a word, would take matters into his own hands.

He would grab a handful of wrenches — he always knew which ones he’d need before he even started — and crawl under one of the injured cars littering the drive. That’s when the wrenches started skidding. Each tool he was finished using, he discarded with an irritated fling, sending them 30, 40 feet across the floor. Getting the car fixed and the customer on its way immediately was the only mission. Let the tools rest where they may. He got this way when he didn’t think Carl and I had accomplished enough that day.

These days were dirty. They were July in southern Kansas. They were busting open a knuckle and wrapping it with a shop rag. They were leaving oily residue on the invoices because you didn’t have time to wash your hands before you signed one and moved on to the next job.

I loved them.

Starting when I was 18 and ending when I was 20, I was a grease monkey, a pump jockey, a quasi-mechanic for a full-service gas station and mechanic shop called Ferguson Service in Hutchinson. I learned a lot about cars, a little about business, and a lot about life in those two years.

One of our customers was Rexann. She had been a single mother most of her adult life; her ex-husband was in jail most of that time. She lived in  a little apartment with her teenage daughter. Rexann loved chocolate and cats. She hated driving and was afraid to go as far as Wichita. She worked two or three jobs most of the time. When she came to buy gas — $10 every two weeks — she brought chocolate for Carl and me, and wanted to make sure all her fluids were full and tires aired up.

She knew we’d make sure she was OK. Seemed like there weren’t too many people that did.

Another customer was Rosemary. She drove a 1974 LTD as big as a parade float, and about as fast. It had a hole rusted in the roof, so Rosemary never drove on rainy days. When she did drive, it was to the grocery store or Taco Tico. Rosemary was too old for much else. She had a son, but she said he never called. Rosemary was sad and angry, and sometimes she would take it out on us. She would curse and blame us for what went wrong with her calcifying car. She would accuse us of overcharging her. She was awful.

But she kept coming back. She kept calling to have us come to her house to jumpstart her (damn) Ford (that we were supposed to fix the last time). Maybe she just wanted to see a familiar face.

There was Kendi. She was a hairdresser who owned her own salon. She wore trendy glasses and drove this huge SUV that hauled her young kids to (no joke) soccer tournaments.

One time, after a particularly disastrous chopping of my bangs, I removed my hat and asked her for advice.

“You’d better just stick with the hat for a while,” she said.

She was always in a hurry and never got her oil changed on time. Maybe she liked that when she came in for gas, we’d remind her. We always knew who’d been around and who hadn’t.

There were the high school girls, too. I think they came because college guys in uniform worked there.

Ferguson Service is gone now. Delmar sold it a couple years after I left and the new owner stopped fixing cars and started selling cigarettes and candy bars. I don’t know who checks Rexann’s coolant or who Rosemary calls for a jump or who reminds Kendi to get her oil changed. The high school girls have probably adjusted just fine.

Those two years were in many ways a coming-of-age time for me. And while I was only 20 when I left to become a journalist in Topeka, I don’t have that same type of relationship with journalism, or the newspaper where I work. It’s not better or worse, just different. I was a different person when I started at both places.

But I think some things hold true for both the full-service gas station and the newspaper. Both offer an experience, a relationship.

Think about all the reasons you’ve ever heard someone give for subscribing to a newspaper. They like to sit down and read with with their coffee. They like the feel of the newspaper in their hands. It reminds them of their fathers. It’s about sitting and feeling and experiencing more than it is about the actual words on the page.Yeah, it’s 50 cents a day they don’t have to pay, but they want to.

I think, to some degree, the full-service gas station was like that. I think people like seeing the same faces, liked knowing that the washer fluid was getting topped off, even if it didn’t need it, liked to chat with the pump jockey (or get flirted with by the pump jockey). Yeah, the gas was 10 or 20 cents more per gallon than it was anywhere else, but that wasn’t the point.

Sadly, both are dying out, often as their customer base does. The newspaper’s fate is much less certain — a lot of people who should know will tell you it’s not as bad as it looks — but a lot of newspapers have closed their doors for good. Maybe the experience wasn’t good enough anymore. Maybe people just want different experiences.

I don’t know why I tell you all this, exactly. I’ve been thinking about my life and my work a lot recently, I guess. Maybe that’s just something you do in your mid-20s, maybe not. I don’t know. It struck me that all of the work I’ve done since I graduated for high school has been for businesses that have been making less and less money almost that whole time. Maybe it’s all my fault.

I began all this describing what were some of the worst days being a grease monkey, and how when I look back, they were kind of the best days. I feel that same way about journalism. The nights on deadline, cranking out a 22-inch lead and a 12-inch sidebar with no good quotes in 45 minutes aren’t all that unlike grinding out a tire in the 110-degree back room at Ferguson Service while intermittently sweet talking old ladies on the 102-degree drive. You get to look back and say, “Yeah, I did that” and feel proud of the work.

You just hope there are enough Rexanns and Rosemarys and Kendis out there who appreciate it.