Goodbye To All That

After 44 years, Bob Ryan is retiring as a sports columnist. He's fine; the job maybe not so much.
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50 Shades of RED

Screengrab via ESPN.

I expected the smell—dude-dense and under pressure and steam-table food and the dim but palpable static charge of ranks of laptops all in a row and all the different musty flavors of mouth that could be imagined from a room full of sportswriters at work—and I have not been disappointed in that regard. I expected, to a certain extent, the sound: tapping and clicking, gurgles, ritual sport-dude plumage display taking the familiar form of high-volume banter. But the thing that surprised and disappointed the most in all my visits to various press boxes at various sporting events was how scrupulously sterile and dull they were.

The nicest and most modern one I've seen was at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, but it was also the most airless and weirdly distant from an actual sports experience. It was, in every way, a really nice place to work, offering copious televisions, chewy A-1'ed steak tips on the buffet, solid-enough end zone views, ease of access to the field and locker rooms and the interview room where Bill Belichick shifts and mumbles and makes a point of not concealing his disdain without ever having to engage any actual, for lack of a better term, sports fans. It also had a crushingly bright, airless THX-1138-y vibe and was dense with the sort of computer-charged air that inescapably and unmistakably signals that you are entering a Place Of Work. There was no saltiness or cigar smoke or surreptitious hip-flask nips or whatever romantic old-timey else I still stubbornly hope for in a press room; it was all "media," no "press." Which is to say: computer screens and the passable buffet and lanyards and credentials and so much lighting, beat writers typing and Peter King popping fruit flavored lozenges—my notes say "Halls Breezers"— and patrolling his Tweetdeck. But there was also Bob Ryan, of the Boston Globe and television and 44 years of writing about sports, who romped and goofed through that climate-controlled no-place as if there were no place he'd rather have been, and who was so boomingly at home there that he might as well have been in his living room.

It was, as living rooms go, antiseptic and charmless and weird—a two-tiered glass tank suspended over a churning sea of frostbitten drunks in Ben Coates jerseys. And Ryan, truth be told, was a little irritating in his kingliness, and responsible for way too much of the bellowed rhetorical "didn't I tell you that would happen?" non-questioning that can make watching sports in bars unbearable.

He was there to watch the game, although he did eventually write a solid story about it, and then wrote a better column about the first one. Read the first, and you'll notice that Ryan didn't bother with going downstairs, into Gillette's freezing concrete innards, to pry anodyne quotes from sweaty, exhausted dudes and take some notional temperature of the locker room. Those of us who did do that returned to the press tank—all the stranger for its glowing fluorescence and meticulous climate control after an hour in that lividly freezing basement—to find Ryan sitting with his feet quite literally up on a table, rather theatrically reading the newspaper. Someone cautioned Ryan against working too hard, and he said, loudly, something to the extent that he was getting ready to retire, so his interlocutor could get stuffed. It finally felt like a press room.

On Sunday, Ryan finally made good on that promise and stepped down, graciously and gratefully, as a regular sports columnist at the Globe after those 44 years there. He'll write for the paper periodically, mostly on Sundays; it isn't quite a retirement, and his farewell column wasn't quite a farewell. But it was received, by Ryan's peers at the Globeand elsewhere, as a valedictory. And whatever those 30 or so Sunday columns amount to over the next few years, it was indeed that—an opportunity to say a maybe-premature goodbye to Bob Ryan, and a belated farewell to the job as he did it.

***

I should admit, here, that I have no idea what it's like to be a kid right now. I am sure that there are overstated emotions and many, many misapprehensions about the importance of a specific middle school-y thing, because those are constants. But I'll assume that, among young sports fans who recognize more quickly than their peers that they will not make a living as professional athletes, there is still some segment of the population who aspires to write about sports or otherwise find some sort of way to stay immersed and consumed by the thing that matters most to them, even if they are incapable of hitting or jumping or tackling or skating well enough to actually make money doing it. They'll find writers they like, and they'll read them and absorb their perspectives and probably write like them and agree with them sometimes and eventually realize that it is okay to disagree with them.

For a couple generations of such kids growing up around Boston, Bob Ryan was it. Peter Abraham, in his tribute to Ryan in the Globe, writes about waiting anxiously to read Ryan's columns as a kid growing up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Ryan was also a formative figure for Bill Simmons, although it's hard to imagine two writers who are less similar. Ryan, mindful in the way newspaper writers have to be of column inches and editors and other things Simmons doesn't have to deal with, writes economically and with old-fashioned craft: everything that rises in the introduction converges in the conclusion; there is no tap-dance overture before it becomes clear what this particular column will be about, and what it will say. Simmons, of course, you are familiar with.

But what makes Ryan a commanding figure, still, even to those of us who don't care much about Boston sports and didn't grow up reading and admiring him, is that he evidently knows his stuff—knows his job, that is, but also knows a lot about the sports he covers. Earlier this week, Kelly Dwyer linked to a video of Ryan effortlessly breaking down the entire 1972 NBA Draft—"David 'Corky' Calhoun, from Pennsylvania, and his greatest claim to fame in my opinion is going to Jack Benny Junior High School in Waukegan, Illinois"—with disarming good humor and frankly alarming recall. There is no real reason that Ryan would need to know all that; he is not going to get many questions about Ralph Simpson these days. Some of his insistence and palpable joy in knowing it nonetheless comes down to knowing-about-basketball being his job. The rest of it is clearly a happy obsession finding its shape and sound.

There is a posi-futurist take on the impact of the current state of play in sports media on circa-now people who might want to grow up to be like Bob Ryan. That take, roughly, is this: that all this new ubiquity means that there are more voices making themselves heard than ever before, that it is easier to get access to those voices than ever before, and that all of this is good insofar as it gives readers access to a more diverse and readily customized array of perspectives than it did back when Pete Abraham was rushing home to read the newspaper that contained the article that Bob Ryan wrote about the Celtics game from last night. Extend this further into the realm of more choices = better, and you've got a basic free market fatuity, but one that is correct as far as it goes—there really is more to read on the web, and it really is easier to read it, and that's good insofar as you don't have to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal or the Newark Star-Ledger to read Jason Gay or Dave D'Alessandro, and that's good because those are really fine, consistently inventive and thoughtful writers.

But it really only is good as far as it goes. It is indeed easier than ever to get access to the perspectives of, say, Bill Plaschke or Woody Paige than it ever has been. This is an impressive technological achievement, but not at all an objective good given the non-perspectives enjoying all this new attention. Easier access to more and more of whatever the hell it is that Woody Paige is doing is not really a good thing for us, and it isn't necessarily a good thing for Paige, either. Plaschke, who is nearly impossible to read, has vanished into a sour contrarianism and a transparent distaste for sports; Paige, who might actually care about or know about sports, has disappeared so far into his own brand and persona that it's mostly impossible to tell. The nightmarish endgame for this sort of national-scale sportswriter is ESPN's Skip Bayless, the leatherette revenant of an ex-columnist. Bayless, these days, no longer writes, and can only bluster and react; he seems barely even to follow sports and his responses to a given sports-y question mostly reflect an odd, lizardly autonomic reaction—when presented with a perspective, automatically respond with that perspective's opposite until it seems safe to stop. All of this, it's worth mentioning, is incentivized by all that new availability; all that new visibility, and yet all the old ways to get seen: by being louder, more certain, more strident, bigger.

It's easy to see the trend towards louder/steakier/dimmer in the conversation about sports—and it's certainly not just the TV guys; web-bound Baylesses like Gregg Doyel of CBS Sports are just as disingenuous, blinkered and trollish, and the affectless slideshow ciphers at Bleacher Report are twice as happily ignorant—as symptomatic of some greater rottenness. Easy, and probably not incorrect: as David Brooks reveals a couple times a week, lordly disingenuousness and posh abstraction is just as readily (and much more damagingly) applied to culture and politics as it is to Tim Tebow. It's not a good thing, this combination of easy, uncommitted distance and happy vapidity, and to the extent that it continues to be the dominant mode in the broader sports conversation it's a bad thing and a bummer besides. For all the new access and new content the web affords us, it still mostly gives us more of the one thing that sells best at that moment. When that one thing is understood to be loud and loudly artificial sophistry bereft of empathy, authentic feeling and knowledge, getting less of it—once a day, for instance, on the doorstep and on paper, yesterday's news given a genteel and knowing gloss—can seem appealing, and like something eminently worth missing.

But if there's really anything for readers to mourn about the end of Bob Ryan's 44 years in the newspaper business, it has nothing much to do with newspapers, which are mostly doing the same loudened-up/dumbed-down thing as the web. Yes, the experience of writing for a paper—the deadlines, the word counts, the repetition—doubtless helped shape and improve Ryan as a sportswriter. But the miracle of Ryan, and the most admirable thing about him in retrospect and in context, is not that he wrote millions of words, or somehow reported on four-and-a-half decades of mid-January games between the Celtics and the Hawks without going insane.

It's good and admirable that he was a smart and a histrionic-averse writer in one of the most lurid and overstated corners of an especially lurid and overstated sports discourse. But the truly inspiring thing about the man is that he managed to spend 44 years writing about the same few things without curdling completely, or being hollowed out by the inherent triviality and repetition of the job and simply losing interest. It's that, somehow, he did the same thing for so long without ever quite souring on any of it, without ever ceasing to care or losing sight of the small and great things about it and the real human stakes inherent in it. The thing to emulate about Bob Ryan, it seems to me, is that he was somehow able to work for so long and also to stay interested and stay himself, and that he had the grace and the good sense to get out of the press room while he still loved it there.

Should Probably Note: I've been tinkering with this since it went up, so it's been edited some, and was corrected for a geographical error.


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