Monday, February 27, 2006

FROM MY SEAT: 1,200 Thank-You's (and Counting)

Posted By on Mon, Feb 27, 2006 at 4:00 AM

It was the greatest birthday present I’ve ever received. Considering this gift has multiplied itself more than 1,200 times over the last quarter century, it’s likely the greatest birthday present I’ll ever receive. And by a distance that would make Secretariat proud. For my 12th birthday, you see, in March 1981, my maternal grandmother got me a subscription to Sports Illustrated.

On the cover of that first issue, dated March 2, was a spring-training shot of Houston Astros pitcher J.R. Richard (“The Comeback Begins”). The flame-throwing righty was starting an ill-fated climb back to the big leagues, having suffered a massive stroke during the 1980 season. It was a rather typical late-winter issue of a weekly magazine, but the start of a relationship that has shaped me in ways few other friends can claim.

I was reading SI cover to cover by, oh, 1982. What I’d discovered was the magical merger of two passions my preteen mind had, to that point, kept in separate compartments: reading and sports. I learned, through the writing of Paul Zimmerman, Pat Putnam, William Nack, and the incomparable Frank Deford, that the games we play and cheer are each stories, and that a story is without legs until it’s shared with a reader. But once shared? That story becomes a tiny slice of history and, if blessed with the right blend of luck and language, it becomes legend.

My favorite SI story? You may as well ask me to recall my favorite sunset, my favorite ice cream cone, my favorite kiss. The weekly dose of national perspective was -- and remains -- a tipping point for each week lived. I find myself remembering random vacations and hotel stays by the issue of SI I was reading at the time. (Tom Watson’s British Open trophy on the cover? That was at the beach in South Carolina, 1983.)

Whether by nature or nurture (I’m convinced it’s the latter, Mom and Dad), literature has been my lighthouse. From reading Huckleberry Finn in second grade to reading Intruder in the Dust just this month, I have become, I suppose, a large part of what I read. Or vice versa. And SI has been the sweetener.

A weekly sweetener . . . for 25 years. I hope to live another quarter century. Why not 50? But I’ll never live 25 years filled with the kind of change I’ve seen since 1981. Junior high in California, high school in Vermont, college in Boston. A job -- with a magazine! -- in Memphis. A marriage. The birth of two daughters. The passing of my dad. (He was an Esquire man.) It’s safe to say that about the only thing in my life that has remained utterly consistent over the last 25 years, and somehow blessedly fresh, is SI.<

These days it’s Rick Reilly, Jack McCallum, Albert Chen, Tom Verducci, andGary Smith who show me the standard I’m to aim for as a sportswriter (can I call myself that?). I still get juiced when a team I support lands the precious cover (jinx be damned!). And with the ubiquity of sportsentertainment on cable television and the Internet, SI has become, somewhat ironically, a calming device for me, a pause button, if you will, in the stream of information speeding along the as-yet-unnamed superhighway.

My grandmother died in 1983. I can’t recall how I thanked her for my giftsubscription back in March 1981, though I know she recognized a good match, this magazine and her only grandson. It seems so long since I got to visit her, to share a story or two that I enjoyed from the pages of Sports Illustrated. But you know, it’s funny. It seems like Grandmom has beenvisiting me all these years, one week of sports news after another.

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