Happy Independence Day!
For me, the Fourth of July is a time of reflection as well as brats, golf, the beach and the Irish Open at Lahinch.
If not the midpoint of summer, it certainly is a reminder that summer is finite—and we need to try to do all the things we want to do while the weather is warm.
And that brings me to a topic that involves independence and pastimes.
In my decades as a sportswriter, I have spent most of my career following college football and basketball. But I also have spent considerable time covering other sports, including all the professional sports teams in Chicago, plus golf and auto racing, the inevitable off-season bastions of college writers.
As a result, the one question that pops up most frequently on the first tee or a barstool is this: What is your favorite sport to cover?
There are a variety of answers that are all more or less truthful.
Often, I will say: ``Whichever one I am covering at the moment.’’
The only one that never, ever would be included is the NBA, for which reasons to be explained later.
But the others? They all had their moments.
Nothing was more interesting than being around the Super-Bowl-Shuffle Bears in the ’80s. Ditka, Payton and McMahon were rock stars, And linemen like Hampton and Covert, who actually deigned to have a beer now and then with a sportswriter, were a joy.
Nothing was more fascinating than being embedded with the Blackhawks. I wouldn’t want to do it now, but spending countless hours in a locker room filled with interesting players and coaches who actually wanted to share their insights with sportswriters was a newspaperman’s gold mine.
As much as I love baseball, I never aspired to the 162-game grind (actually a 200-plus game grind, including spring training and post-season) of a sport where the length of games can be maddeningly unpredictable for a deadline writer.
That said, I always enjoyed my relief baseball stints. Back in the day, college writers gave beleaguered baseball beat writers weekends off. I cherish the memory of sitting in the White Sox dugout at old Comiskey Park, chatting and learning so much about baseball and life with Tony LaRussa and Jim Fregosi. And returning to Wrigley Field, where I had been a vendor and groundskeeper, was special. The Cubs were my childhood heroes. And Wrigley Field remains the Vatican of my sports-addled life.
My experience with the Bulls, I believe, was tainted by the fact that it came late in my career. Even though Derrick Rose was winning the NBA’s MVP award in my half-season of pro basketball, I was too old for the grind. And by that time, hot NBA commodities like the Bulls had become temperamental stars. And coach Tom Thibodeau was nobody’s sweetheart—well, nobody in the critical media, anyway.
Combine four games a week with the modern newspaper demands of Twitter and instant internet stories, and I can honestly say that was the most difficult stretch of my career. I have no regrets. Being up-close to the no-nonsense NBA enabled me to understand exactly why I much prefer college basketball to the professional version.
And so, while I can say, ``My favorite sport to cover was whichever one I was covering at the time’’—except for the Bulls—there is another answer that is also truthful.
My favorite sports to cover were the ones that played the fewest games. Thus, college football leads the way, followed by college basketball. The NFL is the exception to that rule. It slipped in there for a while when I was younger, before pro football had become as cookie-cutter and humorless as it seems to me today.
There is a new question in my mind. Although it is asked by me rather than sports fans, I find it interesting: Which sports do I watch the most now that I am ``retired?’’
I place ``retired’’ in quotes because I am more retired from making money than retired from writing about sports. I haven’t actually counted, but between our TMG blog, freelance writing and book projects, I'm pretty sure I'm writing more words now than when I was drawing a regular check. And freed from the narrow focus and limited space of daily newspapering, I'm pretty sure those words are better.
So what do I watch now? Well, college football because it’s still the greatest all-around game for me—because each game can be so momentous, so unpredictable, and so filled with sporting anarchy.
I watch golf’s four major tournaments for the same reasons. Momentous. Unpredictable. And great potential for anarchy. The Irish and Scottish Opens also are irresistible, because there's nothing like true links golf.
The NCAA tournament completes the hat trick for me.
But what about the bread and butter of the American sports watching? The four major professional team sports?
When I was young, I was glued to the Bears, Cubs and Blackhawks through thick and thin—and the Bulls weren’t far behind.
As an adult, I am not as unblinking. I try to keep up with their travails. But at this point, I regard pro sports the way I regard the cinema. If it’s a good movie, I try to see it. If it’s a good team, I try to watch it.
I haven’t watched the Bulls or the Blackhawks for a while. I saw more of the Bears last season than I had in a while.
This is actually a good thing in some ways. Because I have watched more of the Cubs since their rebirth under Joe Maddon. A lot more. This is probably the most baseball I have seen since I was a kid.
Part of that is having the time. But a larger part of that is that they are interesting.
A team doesn’t necessarily need to win, but it needs to be competitive—to have a chance to win—to be interesting.
Whether college or pro, many teams, including the Cubs, like to celebrate the ``loyalty’’ of their fan bases. If that works for you, I am happy for you. I have been there, but those days are over.
When a team falters, I look at it as an opportunity to do other things. See more movies. Read more. Be more active.
As I write this, the Cubs are leaking oil. Big-time.
It’s not clear yet which way this will go. On one hand, they have a nice roster. On the other hand, they have had injuries. And with a few exceptions, their healthy players have under-performed. The competition in their division also is much improved.
Will they right the ship? That’s a big question at the moment.
And if they continue to sink in the NL Central, when do they stop being interesting? When is it time to look more closely at streaming movies and inspiring sunsets?
I think this Cub lull is not necessarily a lull-a-bye-bye. They are frustrating, but still worth the effort. As bleak as things look, everything is still on the table.
When I think of how many years we would have been thrilled for the Cubs to be one game out of first place on the Fourth of July, I have a hard time fully embracing the gloom and doom.
But if they tank, life will go on. There will be more time for summertime activities.
We at TMG do hope you have a great Independence Day.