Two weeks ago, I wrote about the incredible new book Rules of the Game, which features the best sports writing Harper’s Magazine has published over the past 120 years or so. For my article, I used quotes from Rules of the Game to interview respected sportswriters from the Albuquerque Journal, the Denver Post, ESPN, and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette about the evolution of their craft. Only snippets of the interviews were able to fit into my 1,200-word piece, so I’ll be gradually posting the best raw material on my own website; today, however, I have some New Mexico content in the form of a conversation with Albuquerque Journal sportswriter Rick Wright. It’s miniscule compared to the epic interview the egregious ESPN personality Woody Paige gave me, but Wright’s comments on cantankerous former Lobos are interesting.
Adam Perry: Gary Cartwright wrote in 1968 that no sportswriter “improves after eight or ten years [because] there is nothing else to say…but the assignments get juicier and the way out less attractive.” How has what you do and how you feel about what you do changed since you began writing about sports professionally?
Rick Wright: I’d like to say I disagree with Mr. Cartwright, and that I have improved in the past 20 years. Of course, I can’t prove that. I can honestly say I like my job now more than I ever have—probably because I know I’m lucky to still have one in this economy. My job and my approach to it hasn’t changed that much. Perhaps that’s to my detriment, since the world of sports journalism has changed tremendously. Yet, it’s also important to remember that not all of the newspaper readers have died off.
AP: Don Drysdale told George Plimpton in 1977 that he knew it was time to retire when a hard-hit Roberto Clemente literally “took the skin off the top of his ear on its way to center field.” What exactly is retirement for a sportswriter and is it possible to, as the sports cliché goes, “go out on top”?
RW: Regardless of what job we’re talking about, it’s true that the longer you stay, the more likely it’s going to end badly. Some pro athletes come out of retirement because they need the money, but most do it because they miss the challenge and the adulation. For us working stiffs, it’s about staying out of the poorhouse when we’re 75.
AP: In front of Harper’s writer Rich Cohen in 2001, former Cub Sammy Sosa said “Fuck my teammates.” Which athlete you’ve covered was universally disliked by teammates and writers and actually made your job more difficult?
RW: I can’t think of any athletes who made our job more difficult, though I can think of some coaches who have. I deal mostly with college athletes and with others (boxers, mostly) who aren’t sophisticated enough to play games with us. As for which athlete was most disliked by his teammates, I guess the closest I could come would be former Lobo basketball player Marlon Parmer. I wasn’t close enough to know the details, but it was fairly clear he was voted off the island by his ’mates in the coaching transition from Fran Fraschilla to Ritchie McKay.
AP: Former big-leaguer told Matthew Stevenson in 2004 “baseball is like religion: great game, bad owners. It seems like there was a time when many athletes, with Cassius Clay as an example, deigned to be renaissance men, not just guys who excel at sports. Are most athletes you cover today unconcerned with world news, books, art, etc.?
RW: Again, most of the athletes I deal with are college kids, very much in their formative years, or boxers trying to make their way in a brutal sport—often while holding down a full-time job and trying to support a young family. That said, it’s seldom—probably too seldom—that I or any of my colleagues get to the level where we’re talking to an athlete about their views on world affairs, art, religion, etc.
AP: How has your audience—from their expectations and their tastes to what they say to you in correspondence—changed over the years?
RW: I honestly don’t think those things have changed much; we just get a lot more feedback, thanks to email and cyberspace in general. Going back to the 1970s, when I started in this business, the complaints were the same as they are now: We’re negative; we don’t support the Lobos; too much this, not enough that; everybody wants what I want, so just print what I want, etc. Positive reactions are as rare now as they were now, and just as welcome and refreshing.