Albom: Be curious, be skeptical, be careful, be right June 30, 2010
Editor’s note: This is the text of 2010 APSE Red Smith Hall of Fame Award winner Mitch Albom’s acceptance speech on Friday afternoon at the Red Smith Award Luncheon in Salt Lake City.
My first exposure to sports writing wasn’t Red Smith, but it was a guy who sat pretty close to him. It was Dave Anderson, another columnist for the New York Times. He was, by coincidence, my first profile assignment, in 1982, for something called TV Shopper, which they gave out free in super markets every week.
Hey. We all have to start somewhere.
I was in my 20’s, a failed musician looking for something creative to do. As I recall, I got 25 bucks for that piece. Dave got nothing. Still, for some remarkably kind reason, he met me for a lunch. And having no training whatsoever, I grilled him with so many of what I thought to be deep, probing questions that he finally he leaned over kindly and whispered, “Kid, this job isn’t as hard as you’re making out to be.”
I think I fell in love with sportswriting that afternoon. I owe Dave for that. But the truth is, you almost always become a sportswriter because of someone ahead of you, an older writer, a broadcaster, a journalism teacher. Artists may be “born to dance” or “born to sing” but, honestly, who is born to sportswrite? Nobody comes out of the womb with a notepad and a deadline.
Writing sports is something you are drawn to, the way a cat is drawn to hidden food, or a moth to sudden light. You smell stories on life’s playing fields, you’re lured in by scent, by the winning, the losing, the heartbreak, the ecstasy – you imagine the exploding moonbeams of such drama shooting through your fingers as you type.
I doubt I’ve ever accomplished that despite your kindness in awarding me this honor. I’ve told a few tales. I’ve dragged a few deserving people onto the public stage. And maybe I went the extra mile in a few places. I did write from campfires on Alaska’s Iditarod trail, surrounded by dog poop. I once used a screwdriver to pry apart a telephone in a Russian train station and pressed the earpieces against my rubber couplers, praying my Radio Shack Tandy 1000 would transmit the story.
I even phoned in a column from Candlestick Park the day the earth shook in San Francisco. Police had yelled at me that they were leaving, I was on my own, for all they knew the stadium was about to collapse. Having no light, I lit a box lunch on fire, and managed enough illumination to write and send a story. Looking back, that wasn’t really smart.
But if you had asked me in each of those moments why I was doing what I was doing, I would have offered a rather unsexy answer: that’s my job.
And it still is.
I once asked a dying clergyman what question he would pose to God if he got a minute along with Him in Heaven. He answered this way: “I’d say ‘Dear Lord, I’ve been good, I’ve behaved, I’ve followed your rules, and I’ve tried to inspire others to do the same. So, where is my reward?’ And you know what God would say? ‘Reward? What reward? That’s what you were supposed to do.’”
There’s a lesson there. It’s OK to shoulder expectations. It’s OK that we’re supposed to be fair, truthful and accurate in this business. It’s OK that we’re supposed to give people a chance to respond, it’s OK that we’re supposed to have several sources, it’s OK that we’re supposed to err on the side of caution. It’s OK that we’re supposed to try to be good writers and then try to get better.
We shouldn’t expect rewards for what we’re “supposed” to do in this business. But media today is heading dangerously away from what we’re supposed to do and rapidly into what we want to do, what pays us the best, and what we can get away with.
Some of our colleagues are falling victim to the fast judgment, shoot first, aim later, the angry and snarky approach. They’re no longer looking for pithy insights like Jim Murray’s “Gentlemen, start your coffins” or poignancy like Ray Fitzgerald’s eulogy to his childhood baseball glove. They rarely look to kill their subjects with kindness. Often, they just look to kill them, period.
Our business is changing, swirling, surging ahead even as it leaves many of us behind. It goes so fast now, there is rarely time for reflection. I know I am on the younger end of honorees for this lifetime achievement award, and by the way, I thank you for not waiting until I was dead, as it would have been much harder to enjoy it.
But one day, maybe soon, you’re going to give this to someone who doesn’t remember the world before ESPN or the Internet. Who doesn’t remember it before Wikipedia searches, before the “most viewed” story list, before scores were on your telephone, before press conferences were downloadable, before sports talk radio confused volume with knowledge and ratings with accomplishment. Before things got so mean.
A childhood friend of mine once went to the NBA All-Star game and met Chris Schenkel, the broadcaster. He asked for his autograph. Schenkel inquired which side my friend had been rooting for and he said “the East.” Schenckel signed his name and wrote “East wins!” When my friend asked what he would have signed if he’d answered West, Shenkel smiled and said, “West Tried!”
There’s something vital in that sweet answer .An acknowledgement that losing is not wrong, pathetic or mockable. We lack that sometimes in our business. Winning seems all that matters, and losing is punishable by death.
The best sports stories I’ve ever covered were from the back of the pack: the Olympic sprinter who pulled up lame in his heat, and was carried across the finish line by his father. The novice Iditarod racer who finished a week behind the others, because he’d lost a dog in the wilderness and spent days searching for him. A homeless former prep star who could no longer run because his toes had been amputated due to frostbite.
Our business does not have to be all Tiger all the Time. It’s worth nothing that as I stand here and reflect on nearly 30 years of sports writing, the columns I wish I could take back are never the ones in which I discovered a story; they’re often the ones in which I was so cocky about judging.
Cockiness is a dangerous thing. In doing a story about the homeless, I once stood on line for a meal at a shelter. The man in front of me turned, looked me up and down, and asked, “Aren’t you Mitch Albom?”
Yes, I said.
He looked me over again.
“So what happened to you?”
From him, of course, this was a perfectly acceptable question. And that man helped provide what I think is the most important ingredient one can bring to this job, one that Red Smith and others had in droves: perspective.
Few stories are as awesome as our world makes them in the hot moment of spotlight. Few things are as good or as bad as a headline may suggest.
The smartest fable I ever heard concerned a king who came to a jeweler and demanded a magic ring that would always cheer him up when he was sad, and always keep him humble when he was celebrating. Make the ring, the king said, and I’ll give you a treasure. Fail, and I’ll kill you. The ring maker had three days. He searched through his most precious jewels, but nothing was magical enough. Finally when the king returned, the jeweler handed him a simple ring with no jewels. Just a simple inscription.
“This too shall pass.”
I’ve never stopped using that sentence.
So, if it is custom with honors such as these, to close one’s remarks with what advice you’d give a young person coming up in our business today, I would start there. And I would add the following “be’s”:
Be ruthless with yourself, be compassionate with those you cover.
Be scared of praise, be brave about criticism.
Be aware that a microphone is a funny thing, it changes people. Be sensitive that “on the record” is a guideline, not a trap. Be mindful that a pen is a powerful thing – and a pen plus the internet can change a person’s life forever.
The image from the movie “Absence of Malice,” where a woman runs from lawn to lawn trying to pick up the newspapers before a damaging story can be read, should play in all our heads before we take somebody down.
Be a judge, but don’t be God. Be fast, but not rushed. Be humble enough to admit a mistake, and be able to sleep at night with what you’ve written.
Be in love with language, be respectful of its power and be in awe of its possibilities.
Be prepared. Read everything. Study other writers. Remember that, as the saying goes, a writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you want to pull something out of it you have to put something into it first.
Be proud of the sports section – it’s as real as any section in the paper, and it’s the most read. No matter what the geeks from Metro say.
Be aware of your community, be proud of it, because you are a voice to it and for it. I am often asked why do you stay in Detroit, why don’t you go elsewhere? I always say why? Is the news more real elsewhere?
Be grateful for your seat.
Be funny now and then.
Be on time (that’s for the editors here).
And always, always, be mindful of who you are serving – not your ego, but your reader. I never spent much time in media hospitality suites because I saw the trap of comparing notes, trying to impress colleagues with who could write more viciously. I saw how quickly conversations degenerated into complaint sessions and where I lived, cynicism was the wrong approach. The reader of Detroit, the guys on the assembly lines, the grandfathers in Alpena, wished every day they could trade places with me. If I turned cynic, how would that serve them?
So I often kept a distance. I spent more time at events than in the office, more time in my community than in press boxes or media parties, and this may have cost me over the years. People who don’t know you are often the quickest to speak about you, especially if you are blessed with some success.
But that’s been a good lesson too.
And in the end, that, to me, is what this whole thing’s been about. I’ve learned a lot of lessons and hopefully passed on few. I’ve been blessed with a great boss – and if you could clone Gene Myers, I’d give one to every young sportswriter out there – and a history of great bosses before him, including Dave Robinson, Joe Distelhiem, and Fred Turner of Ft. Lauderdale. Fred actually called me in Finland in 1983, after I had applied for a Sunday magazine writer’s job through a blind ad in Editor and Publisher. Fred somehow tracked me down in a Finnish hotel, and said, in his New England accent, “You know that magazine writer job you applied for?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You didn’t get it.”
“You’re calling me all the way over here to tell me I didn’t get a job?”
“Well, the guy who was picking that job noticed your sports clips and he walked ‘em over to me. I read ‘em. They’re not bad. If you want a job writing sports, I may have one.”
So there’s the truth of who you’re giving this award to. I was plucked from a pile. I was walked across a floor. And I was dumped on another guy’s desk. My journey began in hands of those before me, and this award is my humbly carrying Red Smith’s legacy until the next person takes it from my hands and continues the tradition. It is a fine, noble tradition. As a writer once noted, there have been greater societies that didn’t use the wheel, but there has never been a great society that didn’t tell stories.
And so, my deepest appreciation for this overly generous honor. My oldest and best friend in the world, a guy I knew since I was 2 years old, toasted me once by saying when we were kids, his father told him there were three things he was sure of in his life: 1) Nixon was innocent 2) There’s no future in computer and 3) That Albom Kid will never amount to anything. Thank you, at least for a moment, for proving him wrong.