An expert and a sports writer

There can be a misconception about being a sports writer — that you must be a sports expert. If you cover football, it’s understood that at a glance you can see the difference between man-to-man and zone defences. A hockey writer surely knows which goaltending techniques are effective and which aren’t. A baseball writer can easily recognize a slider from a mile way, or at least from the press box.

Either all this is false, or I faked it for decades.

After covering 17 Grey Cup games and watching probably 50 more on television, and dozens of less meaningful games and practices, I became adept at spotting a zone defence — after watching two or three replays. My hockey expertise enabled me to determine that either a hockey goalie stopped the puck or he didn’t…who knew why? And eventually I learned that sliders could be mini-hamburgers before I could recognize a pitch that wasn’t a fastball, curve or change-up.

So what do you need to be a sports writer?

The definition says it all — interest in sports, ability to write. While knowledge of the game (whatever the game) is an asset, it’s not mandatory. Passionate interest in sports is. So is having enough knowledge to ask a question that is relevant. And a work ethic that sometimes includes evenings, weekends and sometimes ridiculously long shifts — I once covered an Expos doubleheader in Philadelphia that started at 6:30 p.m. and ended at 5:30 a.m. (rain delays), and I still hadn’t written a word for my “afternoon” newspaper.

To be respected, you have to be prepared and you have to be fair, and sometimes both. Criticize an athlete and then show up to face the music, or the athlete’s wrath, the next day.

And did I mention luck? I had a friend who dragged me into his ambitious sports writing venture when we were 13. I was attracted only because my ambitions of being an athlete were history. Then his family moved and he left his part-time newspaper job and, still in high school, I was the heir-apparent. That meant “Friday night lights” — sitting in the sports department answering the phone taking high school scores to write stories for a pay of 30 cents an inch, every Friday night. If the story wasn’t good or there wasn’t space, the inches shrunk.

A two-month summer assignment became full-time and, eventually, a long career in three major Canadian cities.

All without ever becoming a sports expert.