Dave Molinari: The Legend Speaks

[image courtesy of TIME Magazine]

Dave Molinari, a recent recipient of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s prestigious Ferguson award for his 27 years of Pittsburgh Penguins coverage, writes for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Utilizing quotes from the new book Rules of the Game, which includes the best sports writing from Harper’s Magazine over the last 120 years or so, I talked to Mr. Molinari 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?

Dave Molinari: To be honest, Adam, I’m too immersed in the day-to-day demands of my position to take the kind of big-picture perspective on the business that you seem to be seeking. For what it’s worth, my assignments have not changed significantly since I began to cover the National Hockey League in 1983, other than a few coverage cutbacks that can be traced to the grim economic state of the newspaper industry.

AP: Don Drysdale told George Plimpton in 1977 that he knew it was time to retire when a hard-hit Roberto Clemente line drive 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?

DM: Seems to me that retirement for a sportswriter is the same as it is for people in most lines of work. We have much more in common, at least in terms of income, with the people who read our work than with the people about whom we write. I can only speak for myself, but I’m far more concerned about being able to work long enough to put my three children through college than I am about “going out on top,” whatever that means. My hunch is that most people in my line of work don’t even think about retiring until they have the financial security to do so. I can’t imagine that anyone thinks about quitting just because they’ve won some individual honor that might mark a high point in their career.

I can speak to that from personal experience. In 2009, I received the Elmer Ferguson Award from the Hockey Hall of Fame which, aside from a Pulitzer, is about the greatest individual honor to which I could aspire. It never once occurred to me that, having been awarded the Ferguson, I should walk away from the business. Wouldn’t have been particularly prudent, unless I could have persuaded my kids to give up eating and sold them on the merits of living in a refrigerator box under a bridge.

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?

DM: Tom Barrasso, a goaltender on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1991 and 1992, was easily the most disagreeable player with whom I have dealt in my quarter-century or so in the NHL. Which is unfortunate, because he’s an intelligent guy who had great insight on the game and relatively interesting perspectives on a lot of real-life issues.

AP: A former big-leaguer 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 athletes. Are most athletes you cover today unconcerned with world news, books, art, etc? If not, what are some examples?

DM: I don’t socialize with the people I cover, so my impressions of most of them are fairly superficial. I do not, however, have reason to believe that most of the players with whom I deal have a particularly voracious appetite for information that does not pertain to their game and the people in it.

AP: How has your audience – from their expectations and their tastes to the what they say to you in correspondence – changed over the years?

DM: I don’t claim to know what the audience expects from me; I simply try to provide information that I believe readers will find to be worthwhile, and to do it in an entertaining way. That’s the approach I’ve taken since my first day on the beat.

The advent of email certainly increased the amount of feedback writers receive – it’s a little easier to type up a few sentences and hit the “Send” button than it was to write out a message longhand, then address an envelope, take it to the post office, etc. And it seems that, perhaps because of that immediacy, a lot of people fire off messages before actually stopping to think through the issue at hand. And, for that matter, before they can come up with a way to express themselves without employing vulgarities that serve only to undermine whatever point they are interested in making. Assuming there is one, of course.

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