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MAKING IT UP AS WE GO ALONG

3/14/2008
Hyers and Mebane

What am I doing here? That was the first and constant question I asked myself when I started to work for ESPN The Magazine, just before it launched in 1998. I was a casual fan, neither a historian of any particular sport nor much of a stats guy, just someone who read the sports page every day over breakfast and was happy when teams from Illinois—Chicago teams, Urbana-Champaign teams and, why not, even the Salukis—did well. I grew up near Chicago when the Bears were great and went to school with the Flying Illini and Jeff George. It was hard not to get a bit caught up in it all.

My older and younger brothers were more the experts, with heads for numbers and an attraction to baseball cards. I absorbed enough to bluff my way through a conversation, but I was most interested when Chicago teams were demolishing the competition. Close games were fine, but how about those blowouts? How about breaking records for the widest margins of victory, most sacks, most points, steals, humiliations? Chicagoans in the '80s and '90s had what Bostonians have now: teams that pretty much don't lose. Boston has the 49—12 Celtics and the (sorry) 18—1 Patriots; we had the 72—10 Bulls and the 18—1 Bears. And we loved it. Teams like that have the strange ability to heal other hurts a city is feeling. For Chicago, it was the indignity of slipping, by some arbitrary measure, from Second City to Third. Blowouts were all that stood between us and Houston.

It was with only those lame overdog credentials in hand that I bluffed my way into a job helping to create The Jump, as The Magazine's front section was called in the early days. I figured it was just a matter of time before the editors realized I had basically no sports chops whatsoever. Still, I went to that first meeting thinking that if The Magazine echoed any of the spirit of the cable network, where they took games seriously but not too seriously, I might stand a chance.

I arrived at the address they'd given me, a nondescript building in midtown Manhattan, and was surprised when I got out of the elevator to find that The Magazine was launching from a hall closet. To be fair, it was a decent-size hall closet—it might have even been a utility room. I sat down for my interview in a corner, just beyond the adhesives; the maintenance guys had to reach over our shoulders to retrieve their mops and bleach.

Eventually, the company moved to its current offices, on East 34th Street, catty-corner to the Empire State Building. It's a big, open space designed to look exactly like a sports magazine's HQ would look in a movie: a scoreboard, green-turf carpet and, if I remember correctly, $10 beers. I became a part-time writer and sort-of consultant, and it was about as much fun as it sounds; there was hardly a better job at any magazine, anywhere, at any time. Our task was no more complicated than thinking up amusing-to-us ways to present what was going on in the world of sports. Can that even be considered a job? Six or seven of us sat around a table, eating sandwiches—we didn't even have to pay for them!—and came up with entries for the Big 10, the Line, Not in the Next Issue and other features they've since realized weren't worth maintaining. Because I was by far the dumbest fan in the group, I came up with Answer Guy, a column in which I was allowed to delve deeply into the most rock-headed and off-topic questions: Why is a tennis ball fuzzy? Why do baseball players run counterclockwise? (The column still runs. They must have forgotten to turn it off.)

Like anything, my time at The Magazine had a low point. Somewhere along the line, someone had the idea to have Dan Patrick interview Ty Cobb for his Outtakes column. (No, I have no idea why. Anyway, what explanation could possibly suffice?) It was further decided (again, no way to explain it) that instead of just making up the chat, Patrick should interview a live person pretending to be Cobb—and that the person should be me. If you're horrified—remember, I'm a D+ baseball historian at best—imagine how I felt. (How I still feel!) I crammed for a few days, watched Tommy Lee Jones play the part in that one movie, then took the call from Patrick. He was surely too busy to know why any of this was happening. Then again, he was probably making the call from a hotel bathroom with heated floors and a phone by the toilet, so no harm done.

He asked his first question, and … I actually answered in a voice approximating Cobb's. Someone had suggested I do this, that acting ornery would provoke funny banter. So I played Jones playing Cobb, and I answered the questions in a turn-of-the-century growl, and I had no idea what I was talking about. It was painful. There were crickets, until Patrick gave a nervous little chuckle. The next 10 or 12 minutes were the longest of my life. Even as it was happening, we both felt sad for ourselves, for baseball, for sports journalism in general. To this day, the people who put me up to it think it was awesome, just hilarious, and they've somehow turned it around to make like it was all my idea. Did I say The Magazine was a great place to work? It was the worst, a bad place, full of cruel people. They ate kittens and washed them down with $10 beers.

After the "Cobb incident," I went back to the comfort of my Answer Guy forum, asking serious professionals why pine tar—and not, say, oak tar or elm tar—and who decided it should be hexagonal and pentagonal patches on a soccer ball. I asked football people why pigskin, not cow skin or snakeskin. I asked basketball people why rims were traffic-cone orange and not, say, green or white or (my preference) a slightly lighter orange. I think these experts, who at first thought my questions were amusing, came to dread my calls. Still, it was fun while it lasted, until The Magazine was able to fill its masthead with actual knowledgeable sports fans.

I left to write books and do other stuff, and The Magazine went on without me. Thrived, even. Years passed. I read The Magazine, every so often suggesting another Answer Guy question. But it wasn't until almost a decade later that it became clear why I'd faked my way into The Mag's good graces to begin with: How else would I have gotten tickets to see my beloved Illini in the Rose Bowl?

And that's how I found myself sitting in Pasadena this past January—courtesy of ESPN—and how I was extorted into writing this piece. I went with my brothers, who were nice enough to pretend they cared about the University of Illinois. No, we didn't expect to win. Scant few of the faithful truly felt our team could beat USC. Just make it respectable, we thought. We'd dismantled the Buckeyes in Columbus (!). If they were playing in the BCS game, who could deny us this chance? It had been 140 years since our last Rose Bowl. We were due.

For a while, the game was everything it should have been: close enough to be intriguing and filled with spectacle. Jim Belushi sat in front of us; Navy parachutists landed on the field pregame. There was a moment when it felt as if we had a chance. Then Ron Zook ran the same two plays 22 downs in a row. He really did. Strangest thing in all of sports history. It's too depressing to think about.

Of course, in the end we got clobbered. And as the game got ever more ridiculous, I kept looking back at the wall of orange behind me. In particular, I checked the faces of an elderly pair of Illini fans, two white-haired men in their 80s. I wanted something good to happen, for them. I imagined they'd driven all the way from East-Central Illinois, so excited about this once-in-a-lifetime chance, only to see their team pretty much eviscerated. Eventually, I couldn't bare to look at them anymore.

In the middle of the third quarter, just after the game got out of hand, I went for some food; I needed something to ease the pain. But instead of finding a bunch of despondent fans like me, I saw hundreds of Illini lovers milling about, none too distressed about the score. They were wearing orange clothing, buying more orange clothing, bumping into old friends who were also wearing orange clothing. In the bathroom it was somber—more somber than usual for the bathroom, a somber place—until one guy broke the tension: "Well, that was kinda painful." Everyone laughed for a long while. Like The Magazine, and the good people who work there, they took the game seriously, seriously enough to fly in from Urbana-Champaign or Lisle or Oak Park or Downers Grove. But not so seriously as to confuse it with, say, life.

I went back to the stands and watched the Illini battle back, just a little bit. In the end, the score wasn't quite respectable, and the team didn't quite dispel the doubts about its deserving to be there. Then again, it was a beautiful Southern California evening. The clouds were pink, the air was warm. We ate more soft pretzels.