"Working press'?'' a Pittsburgh Pirate once said to me with a sneer.
""That's sorta like "jumbo shrimp.'''
""My favorite oxymoron is "guest host,''' I replied chummily.
""You know, like they used to have on The Tonight Show?'' But he didn't know. And he didn't care. In fact, he thought I was calling him a moron, so he calmly alit from his clubhouse stool and chloroformed me with his game socks.
But I see his point. My life's work is not work. Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight likes to say of sportswriters: ""Most of us learn to write by the second grade, then move on to bigger things.'' Most of us stop throwing chairs and calling ourselves Bobby by the second grade, too -but I see his point.
As a writer on the staff of Sports Illustrated, my day job hasn't changed since I was eight. I was raised in a house with mint-green aluminum siding and spent my days watching ballgames in our wood-paneled den. My father loved wood paneling and even had it installed on the exterior of his station wagon. He'd have preferred mint-green aluminum siding, but it wasn't available on the '74 Ford Country Squire.
Pity, because the Country Squire looked like the crate it was shipped in. It was not so much a motor vehicle as an oak coffin with a luggage rack, proof that you really can take it with you. Every summer vacation our family of seven vacuum-packed ourselves into it, then raced across the country as if through one continuous yellow light, pausing only long enough to attend some big-league baseball game-in Houston or Anaheim or Cincinnati-before hauling ass back home. The destination didn't matter. The important thing was that for nine innings once every August, Dad forgot the Kafkaesque problems of his suburban existence. Namely, that his house was rusting. And his car had termites.
It all seems so long ago. My brothers and sister grew up and gotjobs. I grew up and became a sportswriter, though it hardly seems like a grown-up pursuit. The naked manager of the California Angels once threw his double-knit uniform pants at me in anger, something that happens all the time to baseball writers, which may explain why we're so comfortable wearing polyester. Whereas a similar burst of pantsfire across a conference table at IBM would no doubt be considered inappropriate, especially when the trousers in question were mottled with moist tobacco stains. (Please, God, tell me they were tobacco stains.)
It is hard to believe now, but the heroes of my youth were all as smooth and wholesome as Skippy peanut butter. This surely owes something to the fact that I never saw them naked, that I knew almost nothing whatsoever about them. I loved a Minnesota Twins catcher named George Mitterwald, but only because I loved the name George Mitterwald. Beyond that, I was faintly aware that his middle name was Eugene and he lived in Orlando. Or that his middle name was Orlando and he lived in Eugene. And that the Fun Fact on the back of his 1974 Topps baseball card said: ""George likes to take home movies.'' If George liked to take anything else[cad124]fistfuls of amphetamines, long walks in women's clothing-I was blissfully unaware of it.
For some years now, I have wanted to return to that state of blissful oblivion, preferably without a prescription. Which brings us to the book that you now hold in your hands. It is an effort to revisit the twin pursuits of my youth: epic car trips and an unhealthy obsession with sports, usually combined. I wanted to get into my fully alarmed Japanese car and drive to American sports shrines for a year, or until I became fully alarmed myself. The idea was to write a kind of sports-addled Blue Highways. Only bluer, locker rooms being what they are.
The root of this road trip, the genesis of my exodus, lay in Norway. Two weeks into the '94 Winter Olympics, I found myself in a frigid Lillehammer parking lot with a mob of other unlaundered scribes, violently clamoring for complimentary underpants being thrown from the back of a Hanes truck. We lunged desperately at each promotional three-pack like bridesmaids at a bouquet. There wasn't time to indulge size or style preferences: If a packet went skittering across the icy pavement, we tore after it and then into it, hyenas on the veldt.
It was all very sad. I retired to my dimly lit dorm room that evening, dined on reindeer jerky, and passed the balance of the night quietly chafing in mesh briefs three sizes too abbreviated. In hours such as this, a man is given to sober self-reflection. My life, it occurred to me, lacked a certain gravitas.
The very next evening came the women's figure-skating final. I attended the event simply as a spectator, and my ticket seated me, serendipitously, next to an elfin gentleman who introduced himself as Al Harding. He was a kindly and gregarious factory worker from Portland, Oregon, and none of us sitting near Al seemed to mind that his Olympian daughter, Tonya, had been accused very recently of the contract kneecapping of a rival skater. On the contrary, Al became fast friends with all of us, including a ten-year-old boy from Atlanta who gave Mr. Harding a pin bearing the likeness of Whatizit, a.k.a. Izzy, the cartoon mascot of the '96 Summer Olympics.
""What is it?'' Al asked, examining the pin.
""Whatizit,'' replied the boy, ""What is it?''
""Izzy, is he?'' Al finally responded in a moment of relative clarity. ""Well, I'll have to wear Izzy when I go to Izzy's: That's the name of my favorite restaurant in Portland.'' Al pinned Izzy to his parka like a prom night boutonniere, then leaned in toward the boy as if to share a confidence. ""You know,'' Al stage-whispered, ""Izzy's has fifty-seven different compartments in its salad bar.''
Well. Where to begin? It struck me at once that I had never heard a more eloquent statement of American culutral values (compartments in a salad bar being my homeland's equivalent of stars in a Michelin guide); that I had never been to Portland or indeed to an Izzy's (a chain of pizzerias in the Pacific Northwest); that it had been years since I had attended an athletic event as a spectator (and I genuinely missed the cut-and-thrust of cheap-seat conversation; the trough-style urinal is our modern-day town hall); and that I had never, until that very moment, witnessed a figure-skating match? Meet? Pageant?
It was a revelation. Entering the arena that night, fans were confronted by a sign filled with pictograms depicting the myriad items prohibited inside. Among these were the standard knives and bottles and cartoon bombs, to be sure, each one circled with a slash through it. But there was something else, too, circled and slashed: the silhouette of a toy poodle. This was the first sporting event I had ever attended, in a lifetime of attending sporting events, whose organizers felt it necessary to tell fans: No poodles.
Once inside I saw why, of course. The crowd was liver-spotted with ladies wearing floor-length furs and G-force facelifts. No doubt each had checked a dog at the door, dogs that looked like fright-wigged woodchucks, if woodchucks wore cable-knit sweaters.
All of which is to say that, in a hockey arena five thousand miles from home, I'd had a series of small epiphanies. The red lamp was lit above my own goal. After a decade devoted to sports and travel-everything I have ever covered has been an away game; my entire adult life has been what announcers call ""an extended road swing''-I hadn't seen as much of the world, or of the world of sports, as I had smugly assumed.
Shortly after returning from Norway, I resolved to look again at my country by grazing at the endless salad bar of American sports: from the garbanzo beans of celebrity softball to the leafy lettuce of NBA basketball.
I had a sudden desire to visit the boyhood home of Larry Bird in French Lick, Indiana, and to buy Topps bubble-gum cards and to attend a high school football game and to hang out with pool hustlers and to watch Louisville Sluggers being ""Powerized''-whatever on Earth that means. I wanted to put my finger to the pulse of American sport, and I wanted that finger to be one of those giant foam rubber index fingers worn by pinheaded fans across the land.
In short, I resolved to hit the road and to cover it all -cover it like- well, like the capacious salad bar sneeze guard at Izzy's pizza restaurant in Portland, Oregon.
Fear not. I had no interest in ""rediscovering America,'' which travelers and travel writers have been doing at least since the time of Columbus, who rediscovered the New World half a millennium after the Vikings arrived. At the same time, I have no doubt that one can, through the keyhole of sports, see into an entire culture, even one as far-flung and diverse as American culture. ("""American culture,''' you say. ""That's sorta like "jumbo shrimp.''')