The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The World Series has framed my life. After 44 straight, I’m sitting this one out.

Washington Post staffers at the 2019 World Series. From left, Jesse Dougherty, Dave Sheinin, Chelsea Janes, Adam Kilgore, Thomas Boswell, Barry Svrluga and Sam Fortier. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Since 1975, I’ve covered every World Series game for The Washington Post. My streak will end Tuesday at 252 games. Including travel days, I’ve spent more than a year covering the World Series.

Last month, I decided not to go to this World Series, because I don’t think it’s smart for a 72-year-old man in a pandemic. But I still hated making that call.

No matter the reason, I’ll miss the marvelous misery of covering the World Series this year.

And, believe me, it’s both marvelous and miserable. Every MLB writer comes home from the World Series feeling like Lawrence of Arabia staggering out of the desert.

Last October, I went from D.C. to Los Angeles to D.C. to L.A. to St. Louis to D.C. to Houston to D.C. to Houston to D.C. I wrote 21 columns and an introductory chapter to The Washington Post’s book on Washington winning its first World Series in 95 years, and I conducted five Monday chats with readers. About 50,000 words. Then I covered a parade!

Another 15,000 words died along the trail, never published. Late-inning Nationals comebacks made them obsolete. Rip up, start again — and glad to do so.

Sports crowds create shared memories. Our games are so much emptier without them.

On many hard nights, you return to your hotel room between 2 and 4 a.m., often after writing multiple versions of your story, including one for the print paper filed at last pitch and a final version after you’ve had time to interview and rewrite.

If the game goes insane in the late innings, you may not remember how many variations you wrote.

In 2002, I finished a “Giants win first World Series in 48 years” column. Then the Angels rallied to win Games 6 and 7. A friend, a Giants fan who had never seen his team win a title, called me. “I bet you wrote a ‘Giants win’ column,” he said. “Can you send a copy, so I can frame it?”

In 2017, after an extra-innings Dodgers-Astros marathon, I bumped into a baseball scribe as we headed to the same plane. Sleep? “An hour,” I said. “None,” he said, adding, “I’m too old for this s---.”

I resisted my senior-citizen prerogative to say, “Wait and see how it feels in another 20 years.”

What is so fun about covering the playoffs and World Series that you don’t much care about those drawbacks anyway? Why would anybody keep doing this for so long?

Because there’s nothing like it.

You can’t plan out World Series stories ahead of time. You can do homework to prep, can come up with story ideas or themes. But baseball usually blows them up. World Series reality makes surrealism seem boring.

You’re left with adrenaline (which you may need for five hours straight), fear of failure, the power of the game itself and the hope that — one more time, please, just one more time — your fingers will start flying. The ideas and insights will rush faster than you can type, and you will suddenly be in a place that you have never reached in any other way.

You will be inspired. You don’t know where the words you are writing are coming from or what will come next. You give yourself over totally to the moment and to blind trust — what’s the alternative? — in yourself. You reach the final paragraph, the conclusion, the kicker, often with no idea what it’ll be. And suddenly, it jumps straight onto the page, a thing your mind was composing behind the scenes.

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Sometimes, the writers next to you will tell you that you were chuckling aloud as you wrote. Sometimes, you’ll finish with tears on your face.

That may sound romantic. It is romantic. You may say, “It’s only baseball,” and you’d be right. But I suspect that creativity, whether the scale is miniature or masterpiece, feels a little bit similar.

Of course, there are nights when not much adrenaline shows up or your ideas are mundane. Minutes from deadline, you look at 3,000 words of unholy mess. “The hell with it,” you say, admit defeat and commandeer 1,200 words — some from here, some from there — and hope nobody realizes how disgusted you are. On to the next day.

Fans ask sportswriters for their “favorite” World Series. That’s friendly, but it misses the point. The athletes are playing their game. We’re playing ours. The world cares about their final score. But, like anybody in any job, we care about how we perform.

By this (personal) standard, my favorite Series game was in 1982, Brewers vs. Cardinals. I don’t remember which game or who won. But I remember that, in an auxiliary press box with a couple of dozen writers, my computer ate my story just before deadline. In that era, irretrievable.

“%$#@!” I exploded.

“Story eaten,” I gasped to my editor on the phone. “Can we still make the City [edition]?”

I doubt anybody held the presses, but it felt like it. “Did we make it?” I asked 20 minutes later. Yes!

Relieved, I leaned back in my chair. Then I heard applause. Who says “No cheering in the press box”?

Dodgers rally past Braves in Game 7 of the NLCS, setting up a World Series unlike any other

My No. 2 was just bat-flip showboating. At the 2001 World Series, the Yankees tied Game 4 on a Tino Martinez homer with two outs in the ninth, then won it in extra innings. The next night, one of The Post’s top editors sat next to me. That was unusual. But the Series had never been played in New York the month after 9/11, either.

Midnight approached. My column on a Diamondbacks win was finished, set to send. Then a premonition came: “It happened again,” I wrote. “It couldn’t, but it did.” The editor, now a good friend, read along.

Nothing had happened, yet, as I wrote about “a city so full of pain that it cannot find words to speak it and so desperate to rediscover joy that it can’t stop screaming its cheers.”

My new premise: Reader, let’s watch together as something that has never happened before comes to pass. As I was about to type the word “impossible,” Scott Brosius hit a two-run, two-out homer in the ninth to tie the score. On Alfonso Soriano’s walk-off hit in the 12th, there should’ve been a final play at the plate, but the ball took a bad hop. Maybe, I wrote, it “hit a police shield or Babe Ruth’s watch fob.”

Game over, hit “send.”

And you wonder how stories on games that end at 1 a.m. get in the paper on your doorstep at 6 a.m.

In some sense, the “best” Series are the ones involving teams you covered all season. What an advantage and chance to shine! My first time was 1979, and Baltimore Orioles Manager Earl Weaver was so mad at me that, for the whole postseason, he refused to speak to me or to any group of which I was a part.

I had written about an argument he had with Jim Palmer the day after the O’s clinched the AL East. Earl had said for days how much he would drink in the victory celebration; I simply wrote that Earl had kept his word, which probably factored in the fuss.

“My mother read it, and she cried,” Weaver said.

So, I covered a seven-game Series without a word from the most quotable manager in history.

Next spring training, Earl approached. “My wife says I’ll go to hell,” he said, “if I don’t talk to you.”

“Okay, Earl,” I said, “but I don’t have any questions right now.”

Millions will remember that first Series I covered in 1975 because of Carlton Fisk waving his arms, willing his drive to hit the Fenway foul pole.

I’ll remember that Series because it symbolized the incredible difference between American sports then and now. I told a college friend that I could smuggle him into the Fenway Park press box if, instead of dressing like the psychiatrist he had become, he would dress like a slob and carry a notebook and pen.

It worked. We acted like we belonged, I casually tapped my credential, and we watched together in the back row of the main press box. Now, we might end up in cuffs, and that kid reporter would get fired.

In part, I was cavalier because, after six years at The Post, never covering anything above high school sports, I still didn’t know if I wanted a life as a sportswriter or even a journalist. A new sports editor took me off preps and made me the only baseball writer in America in a town with no team.

The ways our identities form, the choices we make, can be that flexible. The 1975 World Series turned out to be, at that time, an instant choice as the greatest World Series ever played. The sport began moving from out of favor to beloved again — and something worth writing about.

I’d always loved the game and its literature, played it as well as I could, and saw it as one of many windows from which a writer might glimpse the horizon. So, I stuck with it, to let it play out — never imagining at 27 that I had framed my whole life.

Stories take you places in the process of writing that you never considered. It just happened again. Where would I be today if Fisk’s ball had gone foul?