An Interview with Bob Ryan (Part One)
“If you die you should want me to be working the day you die. I do tributes well…”
“I still like the games. I see people crafting columns in the fifth inning or the third quarter and I say, “You’re not watching the game”. And people say, “I’m writing about the people and the color”. Well, guess what? It starts with the game… I don’t think enough people actually like the games.”
“I am very much a fan. That’s my DNA – it’s why I have an advantage over most other people. I can convey that to my readers…that is simply not the case with the vast majority of my colleagues. How can they function – I don’t get it.”
“My pet peeve is a continual stream of one-sentence paragraphs. That is not writing in my book – I would reject it if I were an editor…One-line paragraphs are not writing – it’s an easy device – it’s just illogical.”
Bob Ryan: Interviewed on November 14, 2006
Position: Columnist, Boston Globe; panelist, The Sports Reporters, ESPN
Born: 1946, Trenton, NJ
Education: The Lawrenceville School, 1964; Boston College, history, 1968
Career: Boston Globe 1968 -, WCVB (Channel 5, Boston) 82-84
Personal: married, 37 years (Elaine), two children, three grandchildren (triplets)
Favorite restaurant (home): Santarpio’s, East Boston “the quintessential neighborhood pizza joint – earthy – where Mike Eruzione’s father worked for years – this place speaks to Boston, with Lefty at the grill in front laboring over sausage and peppers”
Favorite restaurant (road): The Original Pantry Cafe, LA (9th and Figueroa) “world’s greatest breakfast 24 hours a day”; Chicago Chop House, Chicago “a classic guy place that does not intimidate women”
Favorite hotel: Marriott (anywhere), Arizona Biltmore, Phoenix, “never will forget a blissful three days during the 1984 Western Conference Finals”
Honors: Basketball Hall of Fame, Curt Gowdy Award, 1997
Bob Ryan excerpted from the Boston Globe, September 13, 2006:
Pro sports are all grown-up enterprises, but there’s none tougher or more hard-hearted than football. It brings to mind the Sausage Factory Syndrome.
You know what I’m talking about. They say that if you enjoy eating sausages, don’t bother inquiring about how they make them. It will make you into an instant vegan.
I say that if you’re a big fan of pro football, just plop yourself into your seat at the stadium or in front of your set when the game starts and don’t think about what it took for those players to get on the field. This is the worst combination in sport: a brutal body-sacrifice game run by people who have become desensitized to the weekly carnage.
Q. How did you come up with the sausage analogy for football?
A. Because it was perfectly logical to me. There are untold millions of my fellow Americans who sit down on Sunday or Monday night and enjoy what I call a thinly-disguised barbaric exercise – who don’t care to think about what it takes to get these people on the field – players sacrificing their bodies and routinely doing things other athletes would question and the judgments coaches make. Many times I’ve met football coaches I like at the high school or college level and I ask them “Why do you choose to do this for a living – this game is so demeaning and you have to suspend so much humanity to do this – there are better games than this – why would a person of intellect and humanity choose to make a life in football?” Most people don’t think about this. So when I call pro football a sausage factory I’m calling attention to a truly barbaric exercise.
Q. How do you personally justify covering football?
A. I’ve said many times that for me baseball and basketball are fun and I love them – and football is a business. Even though I grew up with it and can enjoy a good game based on my accumulated knowledge of history and as a lover of sports drama, which it has to some degree though not to the degree of other sports, and it produces a wonderful atmosphere with large numbers of people in these stadiums and I can enjoy that and I am looking forward to the Ohio State-Michigan game which I can’t deny – but if football were declared illegal in the next five minutes it wouldn’t bother me.
I can be a hypocrite in that regard. Invariably we have to be hypocrites in this business. Look at big-time college sports – you know what a farce it is but we still embrace the pageantry and competition – but if you look at it closely it has nothing to do with higher education.
Q. Can you reconcile this?
A. You have to – if you’re too troubled by it you can’t work. I can deal with it. I go through this exercise at the Final Four – and I’ve written this – the time to complain about the folly and illogical nature of college sports is over – once you get to the Final Four. I love it – I love the competition – college basketball and baseball are in my DNA. We’re covering sports – no sense getting high and mighty about it – how self-righteous should we get? We’re just talking about sports.
If I were drawing a line I would rather draw it at the barbaric nature of football – that would be my choice. We’re forced to compromise in sports. Now if you can find a sport relatively untainted – great – but in my world I deal with sports that have these complications.
Q. How do you pick your topics?
A. That’s one of the most difficult parts of the job and I’ve been writing a column since 1989. Certain things take care of themselves – at the Globe there are a certain amount of givens. If the Red Sox are playing somebody usually will go x times a week. During playoffs all hands are on deck. We do a great deal of game coverage of the four major sports plus college – more than some papers. Then you have follow-ups – you almost always do a column on the Patriots for Tuesday after a Sunday home game. Big events have to be covered – the Olympics seem like they never go away – I’ve done every one since 92 and I was thinking about Beijing yesterday.
With the days left over you generate story ideas, people profiles, general national issues or fantasy columns – there are all kinds of categories. Some are better than others – I have strengths. If you die you should want me to be working the day you die. I do tributes well – I know how to pay tribute – and I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I know I’m good at this – not that I enjoy it if somebody dies – but I’m good at it and I’ve done many of those. Why am I good at it? I have the best sense of history on the staff and I’m a pretty good writer and I like people – I’m good on people things. Jackie (MacMullen, Boston Globe) is good with people too but she doesn’t have my knowledge of history.
As far as history – I’m far and away the best here – nobody would dispute that. If there’s some reason to tie together historical events I’m the guy. The only one close to me for sheer empirical knowledge is (John) Powers (Boston Globe) – nobody knows more things about more things than John Powers – for sheer breadth on esoteric and empirical stuff – he’s your four-wheel drive guy. And as a pure purveyor of prose I’m not sure anybody is better than Powers.
Q. What do you try to accomplish with a column?
A. You always try to make it readable. I’d like to think there’s no recognizable “Bob Ryan column”. I like to think I can shift gears – my tone is breezy – kind of loose and conversational – people compliment me for writing the way people talk – which is not a skill everybody possesses. Sometimes you try to inform, sometimes to entertain. That was (Leigh) Montville – he entertained – he could write more entertainingly about nothing. I never knew what he did but he did it entertainingly. I try to inform. Even if you aren’t interested in the topic and you come away uninformed I’d like to think you found the writing good – the phraseology. I pride myself on being a writer – I always want to entertain.
Q. How would you describe your electronic persona?
A. I’ve got what you need except I don’t have a great voice – I don’t like my own voice – in fact I hate it. But I have a lot of information and can marshal thoughts quickly and can understand the rhythm and flow of the on-air team. There must be a reason people keep asking me to do this stuff. If only I had (Mitch) Albom’s voice – oh my God.
Q. How do you prepare for a big event – like the Olympics?
A. The way we’ve operated – with the exception of Barcelona, where I covered the Dream Team from the first bounce of the ball to the end – from that point on I’ve been a generalist. There are certain big things you have to go to – figure skating, alpine skiing and maybe a little hockey and in summer track and field and swimming. You know you’re getting involved in those and you try to familiarize yourself with story lines that could develop. I start by reading preview material but not so much that I’m bogged down. (Former Globe sports editor) Don Skwar always was hyper organized and had a game plan but that doesn’t mean you can’t deviate. At the Olympics at least half the time you’re doing something that was planned and mandated – maybe two-thirds of the time. But there’s always a story nobody was counting on. Going back to ’94 the sport that attracted my attention was cross-country skiing – Norway and Italy have this astonishing rivalry. People kid me about this, but it’s amazing – over three races totaling 120 kilometers the margin of victory was the length of a ski.
Q. Comparison to the Red Sox-Yankees?
A. When you’re out there you don’t feel any different. I’ll never forget the sight of 100,000 people in Norway – it’s the same thing to those people. The Olympics are a wonderfully broadening experience – I value it. It gets you out of this parochial box we’re in. People here make fun of soccer – but that’s what most of the world cares about.
Q. You’re known for your passionate opinions – how do you maintain your passion?
A. It’s interesting how that has evolved and separated me from the pack. I just turned 60. When I started I saw guys get jaded at 40 and then they got really jaded and terminally unhappy. The late Ray Fitzgerald was an example, but that’s another story. That’s not me.
The answer is: I still like the games. That’s why so many sports editors are missing the boat as they try to re-invent the newspaper. I still like the games. I see people crafting columns in the fifth inning or the third quarter and I say, “You’re not watching the game”. And people say, “I’m writing about the people and the color”. Well, guess what? It starts with the game. If I’m flipping the dial as I was a week ago in my hotel room in New York – Brown and Yale were tied with six minutes to go – I’m hanging around to see what happens. I couldn’t name a player on either team, but I was curious to see how it came out. I like the games. I don’t think enough people actually like the games.
Which brings us to the next question, which I am anticipating, and which I feel very passionately about.
I don’t relate to people who are not fans. Some writers insist they can’t be fans – I read your interview with Dave Hooker – (Dan) Shaughnessy (Boston Globe) will tell you that – but I am very much a fan. That’s my DNA – it’s why I have an advantage over most other people. I can convey that to my readers – they know that if they hang in with me over a period of time there’s no doubt I am one of them. That is simply not the case with the vast majority of my colleagues. How can they function – I don’t get it. I can’t be clinical. Even though I don’t like football it doesn’t mean I can’t go to a game and get into it – and I’m more into football now than ever because of what the Patriots have done the last six years.
Q. Don’t fans buy tickets?
A. I’ve owned four Red Sox season tickets since ‘91. Why did I pay for two Celtics season tickets for 22 years? When I wasn’t working and I could get there I enjoyed sitting there and watching those games. I love sitting in my seats at Fenway even when I’m not working. In 2001 I was in my seat when Mike Mussina came within one pitch of a perfect game. I wanted to write that so badly, but I wasn’t working. I did write it the next day.
There aren’t many columnists who bring more unbridled passion and knowledge – and tie them together to demonstrate love and respect for a well-played game – in basketball and baseball – than me. The letters and e-mails I get show that my readers appreciate that.
Q. Okay, you buy tickets – but aren’t you still there as a professional?
A. I’m a fan. I pay for tickets. I read your interview with Shaun Powell (Newsday) and his viewpoint about going about business without getting close to the people you cover. I respect that – but I’m not like that. I can’t help becoming friendly with people in the business. I don’t see anything wrong with it. You should be able to figure out parameters – I’m not going on vacation with these guys. I don’t understand what he was talking about. I can’t understand how you can be a columnist and not have somebody you can pick up the phone and talk to – somebody who you have a cordial relationship with and can shoot the breeze with.
What is this job all about? If you’re a beat person, how can you have a source if it’s not a friendly source? I don’t get it – what’s wrong with being friendly and compatible with them? You’re selling yourself to these people. You’re selling yourself to make them comfortable with you so they tell you things.
Q. How would you describe the tenor of discourse on sports talk radio?
A. A combination of frat-boy humor, misplaced anger, and a-little-knowledge-is-dangerous approach to things, fueled by hosts who often are very skilled at what they do but are not interested in promoting any serious discourse. They are interested in promoting their programming to get ratings. If they do engage in serious discourse it’s almost by accident – they might spice up a dubious program with a good interview of somebody serious – but in the end that’s not what they’re all about.
That’s the case with the Big Show (WEEI, 850 AM, Boston), and with (John) Dennis and (Gerry) Callahan. They might dress up the show by interviewing Larry Lucchino but in the end that’s not what people remember about the show. At least that’s how it was when I stopped listening, cold turkey, in 2004 when I got satellite radio installed. I probably haven’t listened to four or five hours of talk radio since I got it. I listen to music from the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s.
Q. Your perspective on the New Media?
A. You’ve got the shift in readership to the likes of Bill Simmons and all of the people on the Internet, who are a little less accountable than newspaper writers. But they’re all out there forcing us to re-evaluate where we fit in. It’s not the same and it won’t be the same – our influence is waning and eroding. Simmons is not doing what mainstream columnists do – he has no desire to speak to anyone in power – he observes and does what he does. There’s room for everybody – the access to information is staggering, imposing and intimidating. You’ve got Baseball Prospectus and all that number crunching by genius people dissecting baseball in ways mainstream writers never could – it’s very intimidating.
All you can do is use your access to bring thoughts to the public and to write as well as you can and hope that someone cares and that it matters. And how you say things is almost as important as what you’re saying. When that stops being the case we’ll be in trouble. Our business is under siege. Somebody starting out today should get to a dot.com immediately if not sooner – why spend your time in a dying industry? I’m grateful I’m much closer to the end of my career than the beginning. I’m grateful for the times I’ve lived through. I doubt the dot.comers will ever have the fun we had – because of the access and respect we got from the leagues – theirs will never be what ours was. They’ll never have the fun and the relationships we were lucky enough to have had. I can’t imagine starting out today. Whoever is the NBA guru today – if you will, the ‘me’ of 1986 or 1988 when I was at my peak – no way will he have as much fun as the guys I did it with. The world was so much simpler and the games were so much better – but that’s another story.
Ask me if I have a pet peeve.
Q. What’s your pet peeve?
A. I’m sorry if this offends people I know. My pet peeve is a continual stream of one-sentence paragraphs. That is not writing in my book – I would reject it if I were an editor. My hero is Jay Greenberg (NY Post) because he’s the only guy who writes longer paragraphs than me. We stand alone in the lengths of our paragraphs. One-line paragraphs are not writing – it’s an easy device – it’s just illogical. Anything is okay on an occasional basis – I will lay one down at times but not 27 or 35 of them and you know there are people who do that.
(SMG thanks Bob Ryan for his cooperation)
Situation winners are in? You just can’t beat it
By Bob Ryan, Globe Columnist | November 6, 2006
FOXBOROUGH — Now we know for sure exactly how high the bar has been raised in the NFL, and in case you’re wondering, yes, the Colts could do it. They could run the table. They could become the first team since the 1972 Miami Dolphins to go undefeated in the regular season.
In the last two weeks, they have come, they have seen, and they have conquered their two chief AFC competitors. Even better, they have beaten the Broncos and the Patriots on the road. If the question is, “Who’s the best team in the league?” we can hold all calls. We have a winner.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was predictably glum. “We just didn’t do a good job tonight,” he said. “I didn’t do a good job coaching and they didn’t do a good job playing . . . You’re not going to win with five turnovers . . . There’s not a lot to make of it. They did a better job than we did. We’ve got to go back to work and get ready for the Jets.”
And, uh, this might not be the day to raise the Manning-Brady issue.
Tom Brady was 20 for 35 and Peyton Manning was 20 for 36, but that’s where last night’s comparison ended. Manning’s completions were good for 326 yards and two touchdowns, one of which, admittedly, was far more a virtuoso act from a brilliant wide receiver than the product of a great throw, but, really, does it matter? Manning was picked off once.
Brady’s 20 completions were only good for 201 yards. He did not throw a TD pass and he was intercepted four times. If you had never seen him before, you would have been asking, “What’s the fuss?” (You might keep your eye on him next week, however. He is notoriously brilliant in response to a subpar outing.)
“It was a tough night all the way around,” said Brady. “The defense kept us in the game with the turnovers the way they were.”
And what did Brady think of his counterpart?
“He made some real good throws,” Brady acknowledged. “We had a lot of pressure on him, and he stood in there and made the throws.”
And it was all about Manning and his passing game. Brady had a complementary running game (148 yards); Manning didn’t (53). But Manning made up the difference with great throw after great throw after great throw when a great throw was needed. And on the occasions when it wasn’t, on those numerous times when his receivers were 5 yards or more from a New England defender, he delivered the ball with ease.
The man does have great receivers. Marvin Harrison demonstrated once again why he someday will be making a speech in Canton, Ohio. His spectacular touchdown grab of a pass thrown to the right corner of the end zone in the third period will be on the short list of great receptions made in the entire 2006 season; you can be sure of that. Harrison stopped the ball with his left hand, gathered it into his body after latching onto it as it hung in the air, and then somehow kept both feet inbounds as he fell out of bounds.
Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark aren’t too bad, either.
The Colts’ defense did what it had to do, utilizing its quickness and good hands to force those turnovers. Look, we all know they’re not going to put up gaudy defensive stats. The Colts are about outscoring teams, and they have done it eight times in eight attempts in the 2006 campaign.
Does all this translate into winning a Super Bowl? No, it does not. In fact, an undefeated Indianapolis Colts team would be under enormous pressure entering the postseason. This is not the world as it was in 1972. There was pressure and there was media coverage in those days, but it was nothing like it is today. That was pre-ESPN, pre-Internet, pre-talk shows, at least as we know them. The landscape is entirely different. In sports today there is no escape from your accomplishments or your expectations. It is far, far harder to do historic things in this smothering communications climate. But that’s a story for the new year. The current story is this: Can anyone defeat the Colts in the here and now?
In the last two weeks, the Colts marched into Denver and knocked off the Broncos, running up 34 points on a superb defensive team, and have now marched into Foxborough and defeated the Patriots, 27-20, while intercepting Brady four times and making the Patriots’ secondary look very, very bad. Are you perhaps familiar with the term “separation” as it pertains to pass receivers and defensive backs? Good. Are you also familiar with a geological phenomenon known as the “Grand Canyon”? Good. Now use your imagination.
The Patriots had a chance. They were tied at 14-14, and this was after Brady threw a drive-ending interception the first time he had the ball that would have had Bill Walton screaming “Horrrrrrrible!” They were down only 24-17 entering the fourth quarter and had some excellent chances to get back in it, right down to the final minute and change when Brady’s pass intended for Kevin Faulk on a first and 10 at the Indianapolis 39 bounced off the little guy’s hands and was picked off by Indianapolis linebacker Cato June. It was a wee bit high, but it was catchable, so there was shared blame, if that really matters. What mattered was that the game was over.
“We had an opportunity to tie the game at the end,” said Brady. “What more could we ask than that? We’ve got to execute better.”
It was an odd game in that while there was a definite Patriots shoulda-woulda-coulda element to it, there was also a sense that Peyton Manning and friends were essentially unstoppable. Hunter Smith was called upon to punt only once. If you’re looking for something to nitpick, you can point to missed Adam Vinatieri field goals of 37 and 46 yards.
So here’s the deal. The Colts are halfway home, and a look at the schedule tells you they have a serious chance to go undefeated. Their remaining road games are at Dallas, Tennessee, Jacksonville, and Houston. Yes, they could lose at Dallas and Jacksonville, but I dare you to put your money on it.
The remaining home games are against Buffalo, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Miami.
As we learned yesterday in that Dolphins-Bears game, the NFL can still be an “any-given-Sunday” league. But let’s see . . . Peyton Manning or Rex Grossman? Hmmm.
We’ll deal with January dynamics when we get to January. It looks as if November and December will belong to the Colts.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
2006 The New York Times Company