One death can mean two losses
This column appears in the Jan. 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
On the same day, in the same town, two sportswriters, two friends of mine, killed themselves.
One was my old hoops buddy Mike Penner, who started at the Los Angeles Times the same year I did. The other was Christine Daniels, a blonde who bubbled from heels to highlights.
Mike was a little quiet, a little reclusive, a lot brilliant. He hated going to locker rooms. He preferred staying home, making mix tapes and writing sentences that were chunks of perfection. He once described then-Angels GM Mike Port's fractured syntax as "Port-uguese."
Christine was the opposite: gregarious, 100 mph talker, always looking to cover an event, to be seen, the Funmeter pegged, the curls bouncing. She was flirty, always lightly grabbing your arm when she talked, covering her mouth when she laughed, which seemed like all the time.
"I HAD TO DO IT. IT WAS THIS OR DIE."
"Mike hasn't bought shoes in six years," Christine told me once. "I've got 50 new pairs!"
What's heartbreaking is that they were the same person.
At age 49, long-time sportswriter Mike Penner became Christine Daniels. He announced it in a breathtaking Times column, saying he'd be back in a few weeks as a woman. I wrote about it for Sports Illustrated. "I'm so glad," she texted me after it came out, "that you finally got to meet the real me." It was a "me" I'd never seen in Mike: talkative and giggling and happy. Of course, she wasn't Mike anymore. She was Christine -- 6'3" in heels, blond wig, makeup, flower-print dress, pearls, all stuff Mike used to hide in a red tool box behind the headboard of his bed. This was who he became all those years when his wife, also a Times sportswriter, was out.
In 24 years, I'd never seen Mike cry, but suddenly everything made Christine weep. Getting the "F" for "Female" on her driver's license. The sound of her own heels clicking on the cement. Her name on her Anaheim Ducks press pass.
And yet, two sentences later, this demure flower was barking things like, "Eric Dickerson? How about running over somebody besides a down-and-distance official once in awhile?!?" She'd buy InStyle and Pro Football Weekly at the same stand. She'd try to keep a lilt in her voice like a Tara, then howl like a teamster.
Why now, at 49? I asked. "Survival," she said. "I had to do it. It was this or die."
She wasn't kidding.
My wife, Cynthia, became her gender tour guide, answering questions for hours, since Christine had no experience being a woman. Where to buy shoes online, what the new hormone pills would do to her, the trick of lingerie. Not the usual stuff you hear from your old basketball pal over Buds.
Immediately, Christine became the most famous transgender person since tennis' Richard Raskind became Renée Richards. Annie Leibovitz wanted to photograph her. Larry King wanted to interview her. When she showed up at David Beckham's first press conference for the LA Galaxy, she nearly upstaged Becks himself.
"I think God said, 'It's time the mainstream learns about this,'" she said once. "I think that's why He made me a sportswriter. He gave me a very big audience to tell."
But two other transgender sportswriters sensed trouble. "I tried to talk her out of doing this so publicly," says Christina Kahrl, formerly Chris, of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to The Magazine, who'd transitioned quietly in 2003. "She was going through a divorce and working by herself at home and her endocrine system was going haywire, all in front of millions."
MLB.com's Bobbie Dittmeier -- who transitioned from Bob in 2007 -- says Christine was "pulled in a lot of directions: Transgenders wanted her to be an activist ... the divorce. It was too much."
Eight months into the transition, we started hearing less from Christine. By the middle of 2008, we heard nothing. By October, she'd gone back to the Mike Penner byline, writing a notes column from his LA house. He didn't return e-mails, texts or calls. And then, the day after Thanksgiving, Mike was found in his home, an apparent suicide.
I don't know why he did it. Nobody knows. Maybe being Christine caused others too much pain. Maybe being Mike caused him too much. "Maybe trying and failing to be Christine Daniels," says Kahrl, "killed Mike Penner."
I'll miss them both.
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RICK REILLY, 52, has been voted National Sportswriter of the Year 11 times. His new book -- out May 4, 2010 -- is called "Sports From Hell: My Two-year Search for the World's Dumbest Competition." It's the account of his search for the dumbest sport in the world.
Not to give anything away, but a good bet would be either Ferret Legging or the World Sauna Championships. It also includes embarrassing attempts by Reilly to try Nude Bicycle Racing, Zorbing, Chess Boxing, Extreme Ironing, the World Rock Paper Scissors Championships and an unfortunate week on a women's pro football team.