The summer after I graduated from college, I told a bartender that I wanted to be a sportswriter. The bartender claimed to know a sports editor at our local paper, one of the biggest dailies in Southern California. “The dude gets wasted in here all the time,” he said. “I’ll give him your resume.”
A young man is lucky to have these kinds of connections. At the time, I had several paying gigs which, together, nearly amounted to a job. I spent my days coaching at a basketball camp, my nights shelving paperback thrillers at a used bookstore, and on weekends I picked up shifts at the gas station where I had worked throughout high school and college. So I waited on the bartender. It’s worth mentioning that he didn’t work at a cool and seedy bar on the edge of town. He was a bartender at Islands. In any case, he came through. Two weeks after we talked, I got hired as a stringer to cover prep sports. The drunk who passed along my resume got canned just before I arrived, so I never had a chance to thank him for launching my career in journalism.
Before my first assignment—a high school football game in Anaheim between two last place teams—I was approached by one of the senior writers, Walt Brady, who had been covering local prep sports for over two decades. As I would learn, Walt fulfilled every stereotype of the sports desk hack. He was a forty-eight-year-old bachelor with a greasy comb-over. He drove a four-cylinder hatchback and his desk was littered with coffee stained legal pads and toothpicks from club sandwiches.
“Do you know how to do agate?” he asked.
“What’s agate?” I said.
Always get the last word.
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Agate, I learned, simply meant the box scores. That night Walt taught me how to score a high school football game. He pulled up an extra chair to his desk and I sat down next to him. I became instantly familiar with his stench, a sour mixture of sweat and nicotine emanating from the plaid shirt that hung loose off his stooped frame. He talked quickly, in ominous tones, as if imparting some ancient and terrible wisdom, an alchemical formula that would transform my naïve understanding of the world. “In this column, you keep track of rushing yards.”
Nervous, I hung on his every word, and all his pointers would end up being extremely helpful on my first night. He was the only senior writer who bothered to explain howthings worked and what I could expect when I arrived at the game. It was obvious that over the years he had given his agate spiel to dozens, if not hundreds, of stringers. Before I left the office, he advised me to interview as many players as possible.
“They love seeing their name in the paper,” he said. “They’ll cut out your article and keep it the rest of their life.”
Throughout the fall, I spent my Friday nights doing postgame interviews with neckless seventeen-year-olds. “I don’t know what to say,” said one quarterback, pimply and nervous. “I threw it and he caught it.” I loved telling people that I was a sportswriter. It didn’t matter that I was making forty dollars per story and living in my parents’ garage.
After a few months, I became a full-time news assistant, and quit all my other gigs. This was 1998, a million years ago. The sports desk was still arranged in classic horseshoe fashion, copy editors on the rim, copy chief in the slot. All the young news assistants sat off to the side, typing agate and game summaries into an atex mainframe terminal, with its ominous black screen and baroque command functions. Editors handed me proofs and I sent them down to the basement printers via pneumatic tube. I can still hear the “whoosh.”
During the evening lull, I wandered around the sports desk, hoping to bump into the front page columnists. These were the august men I wanted to learn from and emulate, but they were rarely in the office. Instead, they got to fly around the country, covering the Dodgers and Lakers and writing long features about whatever they wanted. One columnist, Scott Gilroy, was in his late twenties. He had a full head of hair and dressed in a rugged and stylish fashion—jeans, boots, corduroy blazer. In the little headshot that appeared next to his byline every week, he exuded an air of hip nonchalance, as if he had arrived on the front page not through effort, but through the irresistible force of his charm and talent. Someday, I imagined, I would be that guy, but in the meantime I was forced to hang out with the ghouls on the copydesk.
They yelled at me to clean up my copy and write better ledes, but mainly they just wanted to get my stories on time so they could slot them and move on to more important things. “Just hit your fucking deadline,” said one guy. “That’s all we care about.” As professionals, the copy editors upheld strict grammatical standards and displayed in their headlines a seemingly inexhaustible genius for pun and alliteration. Suns Scorch Lakers. But as men, they were greedy, flatulent, and depraved. They subsisted on beef jerky and Mountain Dew and they gambled on everything. Through the night, as scores came in from across the country, they’d scream at the television, exhorting underdogs to cover the spread. One night a rim editor looked up from the newswire and pumped his fist.
“Yes!” he cried out, and everyone looked at him.
“What is it?” someone asked.
“Mel Torme just died!”
“I had him in my dead pool,” he said. “I just made two hundred bucks!”
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