When it all stops, Martin, covered with debris, his hair blown in all directions, says, matter-of-factly, to the portrait: “Just any kind of sign. I’ll keep on the lookout for it.”
That scene captures how I’ve felt about retiring after 52 years in The Washington Post’s Sports department. I didn’t want to see the signs.
But over the past year, with the pandemic and five eye surgeries, I’ve gradually gotten the memo, sent from me to myself: “This is the appropriate time.”
My editors at The Post, bless ’em, want me to keep going or redefine my job or . . . well . . . stick around, Boz.
That is deeply appreciated.
But someone close to me, when I said I was retiring at the end of June, said, “Give yourself permission to rest.”
That will be a new experience. There is a fairly happy, rather lazy guy hidden in me — an undeveloped self. I will organize a search party for him. Right after I take a nap.
I’ve spent my life having a long, rich conversation with friends and neighbors in my hometown about our mutual love of sports. I’ve had a sinfully good time.
That’s why leaving will be bittersweet. I don’t think “He retired after 52 years” requires explanation! But, briefly, here goes anyway: For many of us, age eats energy, both physical and mental. When that energy is what you always had in the largest quantity and your standards refuse to change with the calendar, the result is that the job — to be done right — gets more and more and everything else gets less and less. Nobody’s fault.
For me, that won’t do. Branch Rickey said, “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.”
I’m trading me into retirement. I’m happy about it. But I’m going to miss many aspects of the only job I’ve ever had. To my surprise, with age, it’s now clear what I will miss the most — the readers.
So many people have written nice things to me in recent years — “Jeez, Boz is getting old, this might be my last shot at him” — that I realize how naive it was of me, when young, to think that I wrote to please myself.
Maybe you start there, but that ignores the value, the opportunity, that journalism provides for a writer to have a long, warm relationship, including civil disagreements and laughs, with thousands of people he will never meet.
For 15 years, I’ve done a one-hour Monday chat online with readers. They ask me questions, post their views and their vents. Except those chats run three or four hours because we’re having hair-down, press-box-edgy, sports-nut fun. I will miss that community.
I’m going to miss writing a story when, slogging through hours of rewrites, I’ve finally hit the main vein.
You never know when — or if — you will get that feeling. At writing’s best, words you didn’t expect jump from your fingers to print. You write what you think are your ideas; then the writing ignites and connects other, different ideas. And those insights, deep down, are yours.
Naturally, I will miss seeing colleagues in press boxes, probably more now than ever. I liked my co-workers in the 20th century a lot. I like the ones in this century even more. Pop culture trivia aside, we’re more in tune.
Because I liked and respected hundreds of the people I covered but never made friends with any, I will survive that loss. The only people I’ve covered who have come to my home were bringing internal team documents to me.
What will hurt is missing the new stories, that day’s plot twist, the wisecrack or insight, the controversy or candor, then telling it to readers within hours or minutes.
When readers meet me, they seem a bit disappointed that I don’t have an encyclopedia of secret stories I’ve held back just for myself and them. The job is to find out everything you can, then tell the reader all of it, even if some of it must be between the lines.
The best thing in sportswriting is covering the whole story, even if it takes decades to play out. Then you have earned the right to describe it better than anyone, if you can pull it off, and to interpret the whole saga, too.
To me, “long-form journalism” means you often wait 10 years or more to finish an opinion. And then you still might change it. That’s how long I covered Jim Palmer before I knew him well enough to write a long story about such an eccentric, admirable man. A close friend of his told me: “Jimmy’ll never say so, but you got him right. He appreciates it. Because he’s so complicated.”
In college in 1967, I listened to the Impossible Dreamers — the Boston Red Sox who lost Game 7 of the World Series. Then I covered Boston’s loss in the 1975 World Series. Later, I married a woman from New England whose stepfather had pitched up to Class AAA for Boston. Every summer in her hometown, I would hear and see the amazing, unrequited devotion to the Red Sox that, if requited, might upset some difficult worldview with which their fans had made a flinty Puritan peace.
Before Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, I wrote a column about how injured Bill Buckner probably should not play that night because the game would find him.
“Limpin’ lizards, here comes Bill Buckner,” it began. Then, to finish, I wrote: “… Hold your breath. He may play funny, but he doesn’t deserve a sad end.”
So, for me, it took 37 years to set the stage properly for the 2004 American League Championship Series. That was the best sporting event I’ve ever experienced because you didn’t just observe it, you traveled with it for four days in two cities over four games as the thing built into a national exorcism. It was a momentum whirlwind with barely time to get from Boston to New York for Game 6. It swept the Yankees up and blew them away.
After the Red Sox came back from down three games to none to yank the pennant from the Yanks, Boston would have won that World Series even if Shoeless Joe Jackson’s ghost team from the cornfield had shown up.
The richness of covering sports is in many ways akin to the lifelong immersion of fans in their favorite teams and players. Except that the writer needs distance to find insight and can’t quite relish the joy of the victorious fan; also you must never write out of the bleakness of the losing fan’s aggravation, which, in healthy souls, will modulate in a few days or years.
Of all the long-haul stories I’ve covered, I suspect that Cal Ripken Jr.’s streak has the best chance to be remembered the longest. People who become symbols — of something good, simple and strong — are the ones who endure, such as Jackie Robinson, before my time, or Ripken, who didn’t “save” baseball and wouldn’t claim to but sure helped after the strike that killed the 1994 World Series.
In September, on the 25th anniversary of his breaking Lou Gehrig’s record, I caught up with Cal to chat, which wasn’t hard because I’ve known him since he was in Class AAA.
Cal recalled how proud he was when Earl Weaver moved him from third base to shortstop, putting sign-relaying and other responsibilities in his 22-year-old hands. “Earl’s confidence gave me confidence,” Cal said.
Only in recent years did Cal finally watch the national TV tape of Game 2,131. Asked about his brilliant decision to put a 6-foot-4, 225-pound slugger at shortstop, Earl said, “I was just trying to get through the weekend.”
“Here, all these years, I thought he believed in me so much,” Cal laughed.
But like lots of Ripken stories, that’s a quiet parable. I wrote: “In MLB, you live one day at a time because the mental burden of facing 162 games is more than you can carry. Even Earl’s just trying to get through the weekend. …
“In that one way, it truly is like life: You can deal with far more — endure more, create more, recover from pain or disappointment more, be your best more often — in one-day increments. It’s almost as if there is no such thing as a ‘life’ and its ‘meaning.’ There are just todays. But, with work and luck, they sure can add up.”
You barely notice at the time, but, yes, they can.
In recent years, I’ve mentally checked off the long-running stories that fascinate me most. My industrious father and grandfather both retired at 70 and, perhaps to their surprise, enjoyed it. But when I hit that age in 2017, I wanted to keep going, hoping to see how three stories I had covered for decades might turn out. I got lucky.
In 2018, the Washington Capitals, whom I had written about in their first year in 1974, shook off the most horrible record of postseason failure — and especially outright choking — in the history of North American team sports.
I try not to go onto the playing surfaces of athletes I cover. You know you don’t belong out there. But I made an exception in Las Vegas after the Capitals won their first title.
First, I wrote: “Washington finally allowed itself to believe that optimism in sports is not a disease, that rooting for the Capitals can be as great a delight as it has been a burden and that this idea of investing many years in chasing and capturing a championship is an experience that a team and an entire city can share and remember. For as long as they want.”
Then I inched around the Vegas ice, filled with Capitals execs, families and players, sharing smiles and can-you-believe it shakes of the head. I watched Ted Leonsis, just in case he slipped on his keister. What a Caps kicker.
By the next spring, I got an answer to my next long story: Would Tiger Woods ever win another major championship? When he did, the whole sports world seemed to cry with him in relief and satisfaction. And those who still hated on him seemed to have illuminated themselves, not him. I also wanted to see whether he would ever catch Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors. Now he won’t.
Finally, you know the last act. You can see it in the smile on my face in the picture atop this story, with my colleagues and friends at the 2019 World Series when the Nats won Washington’s first baseball title in 95 years.
That fall, I broke my rule again. After the Nats clinched their trip to the World Series — something I had wanted my hometown to experience, whether the Nats won a title or not, just so D.C. would know what baseball, maximized for a whole month, really felt like — I went down to the packed Nationals Park infield. And just slowly looked around, a full 360. No revelations, just a memory.
To avoid the column-decompression bends, I will be writing and chatting several more times until June 30. By then, the cicadas will leave. And so will I. They will go underground for 17 years. I hope to go everywhere else.