Woody Paige is a longtime Denver Post sports columnist and ubiquitous ESPN talking head. Highlighting passages from the recent book Rules of the Game, which includes the best sports writing Harper’s Magazine has published in the past 120 years or so, I talked with Mr. Paige recently about the evolution of his craft.
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?
Woody Paige: I disagree almost totally with Cartwright, who is an exceptional writer. What I am writing about, and how, has changed considerably since I began writing a column almost 40 years ago. A reader sent a column I wrote 15 years ago this week, in fact, and I thought: “That wasn’t very good. I think I’ve become a much wiser, better columnist since then.”
I’m 63. When I started off as a columnist in Memphis, Tenn., the city had one major-league professional team in the American Basketball Association, and I wasn’t sent to most major events (World Series, Olympics), so I had to depend mostly on my skill, whatever level that might have been, to sit down and think of a unique column, generally, from a distant perspective. For the past 17-18 years, Denver, where I’ve worked, mostly, since 1974, has been home to all four major-league sports _ and teams in soccer, lacrosse, indoor football leagues, on and on. Be careful of what you wish for. I would imagine there are about 150 events a year I cover locally, nationally (World Series, Super Bowl, 14 Olympics, British Open, Wimbledon, Masters) that have offered me the opportunity to expand my writing and hone my skills. There’s much left to say.
In 1984, after the Summer Olympics in L.A., I switched to writing a general column (which was my dream) for six years. What I found is that my style (whatever that might be) didn’t translate as well, and I missed the canvas of sports, which permits freedom to express and offer opinions in a more vivid way. Honestly, I found that people care more about sports than they do world history, politics, City Council meetings…so my audience has been bigger and more diversified and more interested in what I have to say.
I’m constantly changing. I’ve probably become softer in my criticism (sometimes) and certainly more polished as a writer. I think there’s nothing left to say if you are lazy or don’t care as much, or just settle in, but the great sports writers I’ve known — Jim Murray, Red Smith, Dan Jenkins, Bill Plaschke and others – always continue to work hard at the craft, work hard to improve, work hard to understand the readers in the newspaper or, in the modern day, on the websites. Our business has changed greatly, and we’ve changed with it. Maybe the assignments have gotten juicier, although I loved writing about college football and continue to love to write about a swim team from Colorado, made up of 9-year-olds, challenging to race from England to France and back. I still love writing about the Masters, baseball. I still find new stories at the Super Bowl and the Olympics, and the sports world has gone wild — in terms of salaries, steroids, ESPN, emphasis on the NFL and the NCAA basketball tournament.
There is no boredom. And, despite what Cartwright believed, there is something new to say every day. One afternoon I started writing a column, and I thought I had read the lead paragraph somewhere else. So I junked it and used another line. Later, while looking up some old columns, I found that I had stolen the first lead — from myself. So, I would guess, in 40 years, you do occasionally repeat yourself, or almost do. But I’ve written, what, 8,000 columns, and a column on the first girl wrestler to win a match at the state tournament is as fresh as going to the Olympics in Norway and riding a blimp over the entire Games and being awed by the view.
It has been said by athletes that they know when it’s time to go. Most don’t. They stay past the time they should say good-bye. Maybe we do; maybe people in many professions do. But I know a few writers in their 70s, 80s and even 90s who have never lost the touch, and what they found was another way to tell a story or found a new story, yet maintained the excellence of writing they always had.
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 cliche goes, go out on top?
WP: I will never go out on top because I’ve never been on top. It’s not lonely in the middle, and that’s where I’ve been. I think retirement for a sportswriter is when his employer says it’s time to go. I did retire at 40 and became a bum on a beach in Florida, to see what else I might want to do with my life. I wrote a couple of books and did some work for TV and the movies, and spent a lot of time reading and learning how to use a computer. I missed writing on a daily basis. I missed Colorado. I always intended to retire again when I was 60. But along came TV (ESPN, to be specific), and I found an entire new career, while being able to keep doing what I loved best. I’ve recently signed a new long-term contract with the network, and I assume that my career will be over in TV when that contract is over. The owner of The Denver Post said I had a lifetime contract, but I assume that someday a priest will show up in my office and say the last rites over my live body and declare me dead, and my newspaper career will be over.
If I say I will know when it’s supposed to end, I’m probably lying. I don’t know. Maybe it was supposed to be over years ago, but people still seem to read me, and I still seem to be able to provoke thought, which is the only real objective I’ve ever had as a columnist. Will I win the Pulitzer and go away? No, I won’t win the Pulitzer. I will continue to win, as I once did, the Pillsbury Oven-Baked Sandwiches Most Popular Columnist Award, although that award went away with the sandwiches, and maybe I should have, too. As long as I’m having fun…
Furman Bisher, who owned half of downtown Atlanta because he invested wised 50 years ago, kept writing a column for the Atlanta newspaper until he was well into his 90s. He recently retired. What’s he doing? Writing a blog. Old sportswriters never retire. They just turn the page.
AP: In front of Harper’s writer Rich Cohen in 2001, 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?
WP: Barry Bonds was universally disliked by teammates and writers and fans outside of the Bay Area, but they all were mesmerized by what he did [on the field]. I tried to talk to him a bunch of times over a period of years. On rare occasions, he would be pleasant and turn me down. He once told me to get out of the way so his son could come through. He didn’t make my life or job more difficult. I wrote about him, anyway. I really don’t care about athletes’ attitudes toward me or the media. They feel the same way toward me that I do toward lawyers _ a necessary evil.
I did have a Hall of Fame football player come up to me when I was doing a daily morning show on ESPN in New York and tell me how much he liked me on the air. I laughed. “A few years ago I tried to interview you, and you blew me off.”
“That was when,” he said, “”you were just a sports writer. Now you’re a TV star.”
I was the same person. My job is made difficult only by long night games that end 20 minutes before deadline. I defy anyone to write something sensible in 800 words, other than names out of a phone book, in 20 minutes. It is said that nothing good will happen to a person who’s outside after 3a.m. No column is written well after 11:30 at night.
AP: Former big-leaguer told writer 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, who deigned to be renaissance men, not just athletes. Are most athletes you cover today unconcerned with world news, books, art, etc.? If not, what are some examples?
WP: Yes. I’m sure there are some, but you have problems finding them. I think most athletes, young men and women, are like all young men and women. They care about getting their news from the internet, don’t care about terrorism, wars in the Middle East, local politics, reading books (when they can have a Kindle or watch the movie from the book).
Former NFL kicker Jason Elam just retired. He is co-authoring his third novel. He understands. He gets it. But he’s a kicker. I’ve always liked Bronson Arroyo, the Cincinnati Reds pitcher. He’s a great pitcher, but has had a nice career and was a starter on the  Red Sox World Champions. He has a good music career, is bright, knows about things other than sports…so when he pitches, I see if he did well. I never pull for teams, but, occasionally, I want players to do well because they’re nice guys, or they’re smart, or they came from difficult backgrounds.
I always liked Andres Galarraga and Dante Bichette, who played for the early [Colorado] Rockies. Galarraga came out of Venezuela, had a good career, then lost his bat. Don Baylor helped him find it again, and he led the league in hitting. Galarraga always smiled. He always helped the young Latino players with their English and their dignity in the major leagues. And he always loved the game he played – even when he was diagnosed with cancer. Bichette didn’t graduate from high school.
He took me back to his home in West Palm Beach Gardens or some place (not the rich part of town) and told me he was destined to work in a a fast-food chicken place there because he liked the chicken and knew he would be able to get free chicken. He was a pretty good baseball player, and one of his high school coaches wrote a junior college and told the coach about Bichette. The coach wanted to know if he was a catcher. Bichette’s friend said “sure,” and never mentioned that Dante hadn’t graduated. The coach offered Bichette a scholarship, although Bichette didn’t know how to put on catcher’s gear. Bichette got his G.E.D., went to junior college, read a book by Ted Williams about hitting, studied hitting tapes and became a player drafted by the Angels. He ended up with the Rockies, hit .340 and a ton of home runs, got a big contract for millions, had a pleasant career, went back home to West Palm Bumflip, had a kid and helped coach his team in the Little League World Series. Those are the guys I appreciate. Whether they can read stock market reports doesn’t matter. I can’t, either, although I rang the bell once on Wall Street. Big deal. I should have quit then, gone out on top.
AP: How has your audience – from their expectations and their tastes to what they say to you in correspondence – changed over the years?
WP: It’s gotten much larger – from a few hundred thousand to several million because of the shows I have done on ESPN, because of the internet, because of increasing interest in sports. What I do know is that they can’t seem to write very well. Nobody knows the difference between “”you’re” and “”your” any more, and they don’t sign their correspondence, which I consider a courtesy, and they believe that using obscenities toward me and athletes and coaches is not acceptable, but is demanded in conversation. I do think that normal people believe that because athletes and coaches make so much money, they should win all the time. In a newspaper story from the 1880s I read once, the sports writer and the fans complained that players made too much money and didn’t win enough. Uh.