POND SCUM AND VULTURES

America's Sportswriters Talk About

Their Glamorous Profession

By Gene Wojciechowski

Macmillan. 244 pp. $18.95

In case you need an interpreter, be advised that the subtitle of this book is tongue-in-cheek. Gene Wojciechowski, a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times, means to bite the hand that feeds him -- or, to be a trifle more accurate, to give it an affectionate nuzzle in the guise of a bite. He wants us to believe that "Pond Scum and Vultures" is a tough inside view of the "glamorous" sportswriting game, but truth to tell it's about as tough as a kitten's cuddle.

Wojciechowski takes his title from a couple of the insults he's heard football players and other locker room denizens toss in the general direction of what used to be called the sportswriting fraternity but now, thanks to the invasion of locker rooms by women reporters, must be given a more neutral name. Whatever one calls the sportswriting crowd, Wojciechowski is a proud member of it; he may make light of its foibles -- "it's not a job I'd recommend to those interested in financial security, marital bliss, a Body-by-Jake physique and 8-hour days" -- but he clearly loves every minute he spends in it.

Wojciechowski is a member of what used to be called the Chipmunks, though of this he seems to be unaware; presumably he'd know it were he a few years older and a bit more in tune with journalistic history. Until the late '60s and early '70s, sports departments were populated largely by gents who rooted for the home team, boosted players and covered for their lapses, whether sexual, alcoholic or grammatical, and spewed forth oceans of earnest, clumsy, humorless prose. But then came the youth culture, and like almost everything else the sports pages were touched by it.

Specifically they were touched by the Chipmunks, young reporters and columnists whose operative mode was irreverence. They may have gotten into sportswriting because they were fans, but they were influenced by the anti-establishmentarian disposition of the day. They asked rude questions, they wrote rude pieces, and they made a lot of athletes angry; jocks no longer had a free ride in the press, and they resented it.

Which is why sportswriters became pond scum and vultures and what have you, and why an adversarial relationship replaced what had formerly been an excess of chumminess. Or as Wojciechowski puts it: "Ballplayers and sportswriters endure an odd existence. It's sort of like England and France: They need each other, but they're not crazy about the arrangement."

In this instance he is writing about baseball players, but the generalization applies throughout sports: Writers need players for stories, players need writers for image enhancement and other benefits, but it's a relationship in which no one really likes anyone on the other side very much. Whereas a generation ago reporters hung around with players in hotel lobbies and parlor cars, now they often book separate flights and patronize different nightspots.

Just about everywhere you look, there is what Wojciechowski calls "an Us versus Them mentality," which makes for improved journalism -- the good old days weren't much good at all -- but bruised feelings. Though Wojciechowski doesn't say so, the players' resentments are matched by those of the writers, many of whom want to have it both ways: to maintain their journalistic objectivity on the one hand, yet to be pals with the rich and famous athletes on the other. Small wonder that the bitterness quotient in sports departments is often high.

This isn't to say that "Pond Scum and Vultures" is a bitter book, only that its somewhat heavy-handed insouciance reflects the current pose of choice among sports journalists. For that reason and others, it is far more likely to be read and enjoyed by these same journalists than it is by anyone else; above all "Pond Scum and Vultures" is an insider's book, one with surprisingly little to offer anyone on the outside.

This is because few of Wojciechowski's anecdotes are amusing and even fewer are illuminating; sports page readers who'd like to know how their daily reading is assembled will find precious little herein, and in the bargain they must struggle along with Wojciechowski's lumpy prose, every paragraph of which serves as a reminder that sportswriting has yet to attain its own literary millennium. "Pond Scum and Vultures" may have been a clever idea for a book, but Wojciechowski never gets it off the ground.