The best thing about this column, I feel comfortable saying, is the part I don't write, which would be the letters. OK, mostly don't write. I do chime in. That's the worst part about the best thing.
Back in the dark ages of the Internet, kids, letters to Salon used to take the form of e-mails, which some poor editor -- you're not going to believe this -- used to have to collect and edit and cut and paste and go get coffee and come back and publish as one big bunch, under the old-media title "Letters to the Editor."
I used to advocate publishing every letter, which Salon now does, not because I suggested it or anything but just because it became possible and obvious to do so. The reason I used to suggest it was that my in box was the best damn thing I read on most days.
It was so good I used to scoop up some of it and publish it as a column from time to time, which was nice because on those days I'd get to go get coffee.
I mention all this because I don't do that anymore, but I'd love to have you go back and read some or all of the 150-plus letters that came in in response to Tuesday's column about Michael Vick copping a plea to dogfighting charges.
Here we had an issue involving crime, class, race, cruelty to animals and football, a recipe for Internet message-board trolling and flaming if there ever was one, and instead there was an incredibly enlightening and interesting conversation. The readers of this site, if I may pander for a moment, are fabulous.
I respond to some letters most days, and I did that Tuesday, but I didn't answer, or think much about one signed Pickie Beecher. But it stayed with me.
"It must be weird to be a sportswriter these days," it began. "I guess I used to think of sportswriting as kind of a fun job; yeah, there were scandals from time to time and sometimes sad things or bad things, but even without waxing dreamily nostalgic about 'the good old days,' it sure seems like the topics that take up so much of your 'sportswriting' time these days are just so awful and have not so much to do with 'sport' but with the disastrous effects of egregiously poor socialization of human beings."
I'm not sure but I think "Pickie," who identified him- or herself as a former college athlete, meant any sportswriter by the use of "your."
There's still an awful lot of nonscandal sportswriting out there, and most of the best of it is about the games themselves, about touchdowns and triples and 3-point plays, notwithstanding those yearly "Best American Sportswriting" books, which rarely stoop to include any writing about things like baseball games.
This column happens to be most concerned with the issues in and around sports, as opposed to the old 2-2 pitch, though we talk about that stuff around here too, usually at playoff time. I hesitate to call this column sportswriting. I think of it as a series of essays and humor pieces about the experience of being a fan.
That's what's weird these days. Being a fan. Without waxing dreamily nostalgic about the good old days, it probably was a lot more fun when there wasn't a 24/7 media clamoring to reveal every dirty secret of our sporting heroes, when we just assumed they were great guys and heroic characters, but we didn't think too much about it and who cared if they weren't.
I think Joe DiMaggio was more fun in the 1940s, when he was a handsome demigod, than in the 2000s, when we know he was kind of a bizarre loner.
I actually remember a time sort of like that, and sure enough it was fun. But I was a kid, so I don't know how much of that not knowing the secrets was just stuff going over my head or how much of the fun was because I was a kid and sports were all I cared about. It's fun to be able to care only about sports.
Weird as it is, being a sports fan through these rolling waves of scandals, the steroids one week, gambling rings the next, dogfighting the week after that, I don't know that it's any great tragedy.
I suppose it can be argued that we've lost our innocence, living in these dark times when no hero is so heroic he or she won't be covered in mud someday, self-inflicted or not. But I don't really buy that innocence stuff.
I used to. When I was a kid in the '70s I used to hear about how this or that thing had cost us the innocence we'd had in the '50s. Usually it was the Kennedy assassination, but a lot of things got blamed for that loss of innocence. The Pill was a big one.
Then I grew up and started hearing about how this or that thing had cost us the innocence we'd had in the '70s or '80s. Wait a second. I lived through those times. They weren't that innocent.
These times will probably seem innocent one day. All times do once they're far enough in the past. The sports fans among us who lived through them will, if we're not waxing dreamily nostalgic about the good old days, remember that they weren't that innocent.
We'll also remember that we were able, through it all, to care about the 2-2 pitch, about the gathering football season and baseball pennant races, the start of another American attempt to reconquer international basketball.
Why do we? Because for all the scandal and ugliness we know so much about now, sports speak to a lot of us in a lot of ways. They bring us together, give us things to talk about and identify with and root for and against. They create alliances and common ground and provide mutual enemies and continuity.
Nowadays, they come with all sorts of issues and problems and moral dilemmas for fans who care to think about them. And for those people just as surely as for the ones who don't worry themselves a bit, they keep dishing up that old 2-2 pitch, as it were.
Weird? Yeah. Without waxing nostalgic about the good old days, isn't the present always a little weird? And did you hear that that former Mets clubhouse kid met with former Sen. George Mitchell, baseball's lead steroids investigator, and reportedly named names?
Stay tuned on that one.
Previous column: Michael Vick's guilty plea
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