Jeff Pearlman

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Taking a cigarette break

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As we speak, I am staying in room 228 of the Baymont Inn & Suites, a motel that smells like an elephant.

I can’t say this particularly bothers me, because I like elephants and the bed is quite comfortable. But the hallways definitely have a uniquely animalistic scent that makes one long for the return of Ringling Bros. Or clogged toilets.

Anyhow, all this is fine. For me, a motel is a motel is a motel. You put your stuff in a room, you leave, you come back at night, you sleep.

Last night, however, I experienced something truly unique. I returned to my room at, oh, midnight-ish. But I couldn’t find my keycard. So I went back downstairs to the main desk to ask for a new one. I was greeted by a sign that said the clerk was busy helping a customer and that I should wait a few moments.

So I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Then I heard a noise from behind. It was the clerk, as well as the two other motel employees on duty, smoking their cigarettes outside the front door. Just, smoking.

I wasn’t even remotely mad, or even agitated. Working the midnight shift at a motel can’t be overwhelmingly fun. I mean, late hours, rude customers.

But I couldn’t help but think, “No wonder it smells.”

Like an elephant.

Hallway carpets don't lie. Or breathe.

Hallway carpets don’t lie. Or breathe.

Back to the future

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Joan Pearlman, my mother, attended a reunion of people who lived in my hometown of Mahopac, N.Y. Here’s her report, exclusively for jeffpearlman.com …

There’s nothing like going to a reunion of folks who’ve resided in Mahopac, N.Y. in the past, and some who continue to have homes there.

Our only commonality is having resided in that small town in Putnam County at one time or another. We  were to meet at a fun type of bar/restaurant called the The Square Grouper, on the water in Jupiter, Fla.  Initially, we did not know who to look for, but eventually located the group.  And what a fun bunch they were!

Most were childhood friends who grew up together in Yonkers, N.Y., then eventually moved up to what was then rural Putnam County.   Don Smith and his wife, Eileen resided on Kings Ridge until 1967, and relocated to Florida in 1972.  Don was known as a stickball player in Yonkers.  Then there’s Al Shikaly,  a musician,  who now resides in Vero Beach.  Bobby O’Donnell, a 1969 Yonkers High School grad, is a Mahopacian as well. Jim Walsh, Don Smith’s brother-in-law, has been married for 43 years and exclaims “Go Navy!”

Those listed are but a small segment of the raucous group who enjoy getting together yearly to rejoice and reminisce.

A fun time was had by all.

Don’t worry about Donald Trump and guns

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I have good news, and this comes from someone who has now spent two years writing about and researching (in large part) Donald Trump for my USFL book.

If today you watched the president’s gun-related meeting at the White House, and you’re overly concerned about what actions he’ll take in regards to violence in America, or it’s something that is keeping you up nights (What will the president do? How will he protect America?), well, don’t worry.

He’ll do absolutely nothing.

You watched him today.

I watched him today.

Maybe you thought, “Wow, he’s listening. This is wonderful.”

No.

Seriously, no.

In case you missed this, the Washington Post ran an image of the paper Trump was holding during the meeting. Take a close look …

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It was all a show. And act. Dialogue. Just like his TV background, where makeup is applied, lines are repeated, empathy is practiced as an emotion to show. I want to repeat that last point: Empathy is practiced as an emotion to show. Fuck, look at the paper. He has five talking points, because … they’re not real. It’s all a script for a conman.

Nothing of substance will happen with this turd as president.

Nothing.

 

My eternal mistake

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Earlier today I flew from Los Angeles to Cincinnati.

My plan was to wear running shoes on the plane, then work out this evening upon arriving at my motel. However, I always forget to slip on sneakers upon leaving the house, and wind up at the airport in flip-flops.

Then I go through security check, and the above scene plays out.

It haunts me.

The floor at LAX felt just as it looks. Cold. Clamy. A bit sticky, like three-day-old gum affixed to a desk. As soon as I reached security, and knew I’d need to once again go sock-less, I grunted. I am not one to be grossed out, but this was just … really … really … really disgusting.

And now I’ve probably got foot rot.

Oy.

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PS: An odd side note. Flew Delta, sat along a nice young woman with a cute dog in a carrying case. She asked if I’d be OK with the pooch sitting on her lap. “No problem,” I said. Seriously, the canine was adorable and the size of three packs of Junior Mints. Alas, one of the flight attendants came and told her the dog had to be in the case—then stood over us, principal-like, making sure my row-mate did as told. It was cold and weird and a bit uncomfortable.

That said, the woman didn’t talk back or snarl. It turns out her name is Kristina Schulman—former contestant on the Bachelor and owner of more than 100,000 Twitter followers. She Tweeted out something about the experience—and I re-Tweeted it. A bad look for Delta.

Don’t fall for the gun con

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 7.08.38 PMIn the coming days, Donald Trump will propose two actions involving guns.

• A. A ban of bump stocks.

• B. A stronger background check system.

He will then stand back and watch as the NRA applauds his moves; as Fox News’ army of drooling white lemmings applaud his moves; as millions of Russian bots applaud his moves; as Jim and Irene in Ada, Oklahoma and Bob and Louise in Toledo applaud his moves. In all likelihood, enough people will applaud his moves that the latest wave of post-gun tragedy anger will fade just enough, and we will return to normal until the next school shooting occurs; until more children are slaughtered because our leaders are owned by the gun industry.

Don’t fall for it.

Ever since last week’s Florida massacre, the NRA and (by his standards) Trump have remained silent. This is not accidental (I promise), but a tried-and-true strategy. Let the flames burn themselves out; just hang back and wait … wait … wait … wait. That’s exactly what’s happening. The students who showed up at the Sunshine State Capitol will return to school. Life will go on. They’ll be distracted, as they should. College proposals. Dating. Math tests.

Now, the next step—Trump offers a pair of toothless proposals that are pure sales job; proposals the NRA has never actually opposed; proposals that will do almost nothing.

Sadly, this will likely work, because our president is not only in cahoots with the NRA, but he is one of the greatest conmen this world has ever hosted.

He will stand at the podium, give a solemn speech about this type of violence never happening again. His brainwashed Republican followers will stand and clap, then call out those Democrats who fail to stand and clap (“We’re giving them what they wanted, right? They’re so unpatriotic”). The money will arrive in bulk, the conservatives will win elections, more people will be needlessly murdered.

And we’ll blame video games.

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George Dohrmann

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In case you were wondering from the above photograph, George Dohrmann is not a dog.

He’s a writer. A really good one. In 2000, while working as a staffer at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, George won a Pulitzer Prize for a series on academic fraud within the University of Minnesota’s men’s basketball program. That, however, was just the beginning of a magical career that took him to Sports Illustrated, then Bleacher Report, and now The Athletic.

Most important, George is a journalist’s journalist. What that means is he seeks, and digs, and asks 1,000 questions for every utterance. In our years working together, I’ve rarely heard George dismiss something without thinking it through. He’s game for funky concepts. Interesting approaches. New ideas.

That outlook, truly, explains the release of his new book, Superfans, which delves into the colorful, funkafied world of sports crazies and their approaches to the games and life. George devoted several years toward explaining why these people walk the earth so colorfully, and how they reached such points of athletic contentment.

It also explains why George Dohrmann (who is on Twitter here, and whose website is here) is the magical 348th Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: George, I wanna start with a funky one. In 2000, while working at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, you won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories that uncovered academic fraud within the University of Minnesota men’s basketball program. Earlier this year one of my Quazes featured Alan Schwarz, the New York Times writer who was led to believe he’d win a Pulitzer for his work on concussions. He didn’t, then told me, “I’ll admit that not a day goes by—literally—when I don’t wonder what could have been.” Well, you won one. How did it impact your life? Career? Change it? Mold it?

GEORGE DOHRMANN: After I won, I was talking to the Washington Post about a job and they had me meet with Bob Woodward. He told me, “All that matters is what you do now,” and he was totally right. Quickly, name a person who won a Pulitzer last year. I doubt you can. It is a huge honor, of course, but it doesn’t change that you have to go to work and report and write and you’ll continue to be judged on the work you do and not the work or awards from the past. It is not like you get $5 million and can ride off into the sunset. (I think I got $5,000). So, you get this big award and then . . . you go back to work.

Of course, there are benefits. It is great for the résumé; it helps you get book deals and land interviews for jobs. It helps with access to people who maybe wouldn’t talk to you otherwise. It surely helped me skip a rung or two on the career ladder, jumping straight from the Pioneer Press to a writing gig at Sports Illustrated.

Honestly, the biggest benefit came in that I have leaned on it when my confidence has wavered. As you know, SI back when we were there could be a rough place for young writers. It was very editor driven. Their early opinion of me was that I wasn’t a good writer. That might have crushed me, but I could always tell myself, “Well, I’ve won a Pulitzer and what has (fill in the editor’s name) ever done? So, fuck him. He’s wrong.” That helped me survive my early SI years, and eventually the editors there realized that I could write. So, in short, it did provide a needed confidence boost.

So, back to Alan, I would tell him that months and months go by – literally – and I don’t think at all about having won the Pulitzer. And, if he had won, I doubt his life would be very different from whatever it is now.

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J.P.: Along those lines, in your website bio you say that you were, briefly, “one of the most despised people in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.” And I wonder—why? What I mean is, have you figured out what college sports fans (most of whom are adults) would be upset about uncovering an ugly truth about a college they root for? I mean, it’s just sports, no?

G.D.: At the time, this baffled me. I used to get into lengthy email exchanges with Minnesota fans – even during the heat of me reporting on the program – where I would be saying: “But don’t you want to root for a clean program?” and they would answer something like: “Go fuck yourself.” It just baffled me. But I get it now. Being a fan of a team is now such a huge part of people’s identities that when you expose cheating or some other stain you aren’t just threatening the success of their team you are threatening who they are as individuals. If Minnesota is cheating, then they have been supporting a cheater, so they feel like a lesser person in some way. Their self-esteem takes a hit. Rather than confront that, they lash out. I think the relationship between college fans and their favorite school and their over-the-top behavior is more easily understood if you frame it as: Their identity is under assault.

J.P.: Your new book, “Superfans,” digs into the world of crazed, die-with-their-teams fans. And I wonder—why do these people exist? Presumably they have jobs, families, hobbies, etc. So why so much emphasis on, say, Kentucky basketball? Long Beach State baseball? Houston cheerleading? I mean, we’re all gonna die at some point. Is this a worthwhile way to spend our days?

G.D.: What I learned travelling around the country talking to obsessed sports fans is that everyone has a unique reason why they have created that intense relationship with a team. Also, most of these people, who from the outside can look deranged, are just normal people with jobs, wives, kids, etc. Many of them are great people to sit around and have coffee or a beer with. But there is something about them that needs their fandom. The Rally Banana (Teddy Kervin) in Milwaukee is an exhibitionist. He needs to perform, to be seen, to stand out. When he is doing that his self-esteem goes way up. Michael Hopson, aka Colts Superfan, loves art and his crazy costumes are an expression of his creativity, which was suppressed during his childhood and early adulthood. The founder of the Vikings World Order came out of the military, and he is happiest when there is order in his life, thus he helped create a very clear hierarchy for that group and expectations for how members should behavior. We can argue whether they should find something else to fill those needs, but what is clear is that most people are happier as a result of their fandom, and almost all the people I profile are doing no harm. So, I say, let them be fans.

J.P.: In the mid-1990s you spent a year covering USC men’s basketball. Which seems sorta, eh, not particularly prime time in the land of 1,000 teams. What do you recall of the experience? The good? The bad?

G.D.: I got my ass kicked on that beat. I only got that gig because I broke some investigative stories and they gave me the USC beat as sort of a reward because at that time no one cared about USC basketball. Scott Reid was covering USC for the OC Register back then and he’s a good reporter and I was a baby. He slaughtered me, and that was back when the LA Times got a lot of stuff just because it was the LA Times. I was like 22 and clueless and it showed. I remember once Scott got ahold of the divorce filings for the head coach, Henry Bibby, and there was all this financial stuff in there (USC was a private school so these were numbers that would not normally get out). It was a good get and hadn’t even been on my radar. I learned a lot during that one year, most of all that I had a lot to learn.

The best part was that USC made the NCAA Tournament that season. No one expected it. That got me sent to the first weekend of the tournament and then the editors at the LA Times just told me to stay on the road. I went to Tennessee between rounds of the tournament to do a story on UT-Chattanooga, then to Syracuse for a regional final. I felt like a real professional writer. Of course, when the tournament was over I went back to answering phones and getting dinner for the copy desk. Two months later I left for the Pioneer Press so I could write full-time.

J.P.: You wrote a book. “Play Their Hearts Out,” about America’s youth basketball machine. And I was thinking about my neck of the woods here in Southern California, where we’ve suffered a rash of youth suicides. And maybe this is a stretch of a connection, but do you think we’re putting too much pressure on kids? Do you think we’re ruining their childhoods in the name of longshot glory? Or is there some wisdom to it all?

G.D.: There is no wisdom to it. That book is really a journey from start to finish on how outsized expectations start and what they lead to, which is kids who have been truly damaged. Overuse injuries from early specialization is a huge issue. There is a great doctor at Emory University, Neeru Jayanthi, who has done important work on that issue and parents should read his stuff. And “Play Their Hearts Out” really shows you, kid by kid, the psychological damage that can be done when we put pressure on kids. It is so, sad. We are ruining lives. That is not being overly dramatic. But I don’t know what can be done. Parents are so obsessed with chasing athletic glory for their kids, and there are so many people who profit off that hope, like the main coach in my book, that it is now a huge industry that is only growing.

J.P.: You and I are both pretty new to The Athletic. Which makes sense because it’s, um, pretty new. My question for you—does this wind up working? A pay site, regional focusses. What has to happen? What can’t happen?

G.D.: I’m a believer and one reason is Michael Robson. Who is that? He is one of my college buddies. He lives in Chicago, and he follows the teams there, but he is from New York, and his fandom is all over the place. He loves the Yankees, the Philadelphia Eagles, Notre Dame and other teams. So how does that guy follow all those teams? Well, he can subscribe to a lot of newspapers and other sites, but The Athletic does (or soon will) have a really good beat reporter covering every one of his favorite teams. For about $40 a year he is totally covered. Now, there are surely other sites/writers he also wants access to, but Mike is a diehard fan (a Superfan!) and he can’t get enough coverage of his beloved teams, and the cost of a yearly subscription to The Athletic is so low it is a no-brainer for him even if he remains loyal to other sites/writers. So, that’s why I think it will succeed. You toss in the national sites we offer as a bonus, like Ink, the longform site you write for and I edit, and The Athletic is just worth it. Great content at a good price point. No ads. A great reading experience.

What can’t happen? We need to hire smartly and stick to our vision. We get one chance to show people how good we are so it better be good. And we are selling this very specific experience (no ads, quality over quantity, no pivot to video) and that is what they are buying and we need to remain loyal to that.

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J.P.: You and I also wrote for Bleacher Report, and I think it’s fair to say we both felt a bit of, well, antagonism toward writers who were older than, oh, 40. I’ve thought about this a lot—can an argument be made for the approach? You know, we’re a young site, we wanna appeal to a young audience. So by relying on writers in their 20s, early 30s we’ll be directly hitting the readers who speak a similar language?

G.D.: I think that the folks at B/R who feel that way aren’t 100% wrong. There is a style of writing now, more conversational, more of the writer on the page, that I think younger people might be more comfortable with, and they might connect more with a writer doing that as opposed to one, say, doing what we used to do at SI. I think there is a healthy discussion to have about writing, about the craft, and about what might appeal to young readers.

But I also think that is a terribly simplistic way to view your audience: young wants young. I once had a discussion with an editor at B/R who was raving about a story that ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne did. I read the story and it was really good. And it was really good because Ramona is really tapped into the NBA; she’s reported on it for years, especially in LA. She knew her subject and knows how to report. That’s why it was good. There was absolutely nothing in the writing that you would point to and say: “That language is skewing young” or whatever. And, oh, by the way, Ramona is a lot closer to 40 than she is 30. Howard Beck, B/R’s great NBA writer, is older than we are, I believe, and I don’t read his stories and say, “Man, Howard is writing young.” The components that make a story compelling are unchanged.

I’d wager that the antagonism we felt at B/R was mostly about editors just wanting “their” writers, to be able to say that they discovered someone as opposed to handing a story to Jeff Pearlman, who has been good for a long time. That isn’t as sexy; an editor can’t brag about that at the bar or in a future job interview, so they make the excuse that they need someone who writes with a “younger” voice when what they really want is a writer they can claim to have discovered.

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J.P.: You graduated from Notre Dame in 1995 with a B.A. in American Studies and later earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of San Francisco. But when did you know you wanted to be a journalist? What was your ah-ha moment? When did you know you had skills?

G.D.: There was no ah-ha moment for me. I wrote for my high school paper and loved it and knew I wanted to write about sports as long as I could. My dad sold insurance. His dad sold insurance. That didn’t sound fun. I was also a kid who loved sports and devoured sports magazines and sports books, so it was all just very logical and I am a logical person, I guess. I was also a confident/naive enough kid that I never thought I couldn’t do it. It was just: “This is what I am going to do so go do it.”

There was a moment at the LA Times right out of college when I realized “Hey, I’m doing this. I’m a pro.” I was working the desk one Saturday night and an editor, Dave Morgan, walked over and told me to book a flight to Las Vegas. A kid from Southern California was within a few shots of the lead at a PGA event in Las Vegas and the golf writer, Thomas Bonk, was on vacation and the 10 or so other writers he tried couldn’t go at the last minute for whatever reasons. So he told me, lowly desk assistant, go to Las Vegas. I had never covered a golf event before, and the next day, when I was there, I admitted that to the slot editor, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who was kind to young writers. I basically told him: “I didn’t know what I am doing.” He asked me to read off the names of the writers already there, and Len Shapiro from the Washington Post was on the list. Emilio had me give the phone to Len (who Emilio worked with at The Post). After a few seconds, Len hangs up the phone laughing. He turns to me and says, “Just do what I do and Emilio says I’m supposed to give you my second best lead.” The second part was a joke, of course, but not the first. I followed Len around, interviewed everyone he interviewed, and then put together a story. And, that is how I had the byline on the LA Times story of Tiger Woods’ first PGA win. My story went out over the LA Times news service and my byline was in papers all over the country. I walked into that newsroom the next day and people were congratulating me and I felt like the real deal. (Thanks, Len!)

Side note: Usually I read my old stories and I cringe. Did I really write that lead? But that Tiger Woods/Las Vegas Invitational story was solid. Not great by any measure but solid. It holds up (Thanks again, Len!)

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

G.D.: The greatest was not winning the Pulitzer, but it was doing the work that won the Pulitzer. I hope that makes sense. I worked so hard on those stories for so long, and I was working with a stud editor in Emilio (who I followed from LA to St. Paul), who is now a bigwig at the Washington Post, and other great people at the Pioneer Press. We were the underdog in the Minnesota newspaper war and it was fun to be in that position, to be the little guy and leading on that story from the start. It was a wonderful team of pros there, and I was this young guy who was leading the coverage but also learning from more experienced journalists. It was also the heyday of the PiPress, just before it was gutted like so many newspapers.

The lowest? I was pretty miserable at SI for a few years, maybe like 2003-07. I just couldn’t find my place, I guess, and also wasn’t getting a lot of direction from New York. I went and got my MFA in night classes and worked on “Play Their Hearts Out,” and had I not had those things I would have been even more miserable. But then I hooked up with BJ Schecter, an editor you know well, and we did some good work together, and that was reinvigorating. Had that not happened I think I wouldn’t look back fondly on my time at SI. I did my best work in my last couple years there, and that salvaged the experience.

J.P.: What are the keys to being a great investigative journalist? I know that sounds like a question a 10-year-old kid asks at Career Day, but I mean beyond the surface, “You have to work hard and dig.” Are they specific skills one needs? A fearlessness?

G.D.: I get asked this a lot and I don’t know that there are skills that go beyond what every journalist needs. Maybe you need more patience than that average writer. Maybe you need to be more like a dog on bone, just unwilling to give something up. You certainly have to be willing to get yelled at, cursed at, doors slammed in your face and all that. I was once at a conference with Emilio after we won the Pulitzer and someone asked him what my strongest attribute was. He said: “Insecurity. George is the most insecure reporter I’ve ever met.” That messed with me a little, but then I thought about it and he was right. I was (and can be) so insecure — worried I missed something, that I got something wrong, that I am going to get beat on a story – and that forces you to work harder, be more careful. Still, I don’t think J-school professors should be telling students: “Be more insecure and fragile.”

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH GEORGE DOHRMANN:

• Am I wrong in thinking your life would be easier with one less N attached to the rear of your last name?: I hate that extra “n” and I wouldn’t mind dumping the ‘h” as well.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Jordan Clarkson, Jack Cooley, Tostitos Restaurant Style Salsa, “Old School,” Rick Robey, Matt Bevin, Megadeth, Carmen Electra, Steve Rushin: Jack Cooley (great dude), Steve Rushin, Old School, Jordan Clarkson, Rick Robey, Carmen Electra, Megadeth, Tostitos Restaurant Style Salsa, Matt Bevin. Really tough call between crap salsa and Bevin, as I am huge Mexican food aficionado, but Bevin is an asshat.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nope. Never. Thankfully. I’ve had that dream several times but never happened in real life. You probably just jinxed me by asking about it. Damn you.

• One question you would ask Vin Baker were he here right now: Would you let Jeff Pearlman write a 3,000-word profile of you? (I need some stories for The Athletic Ink.)

• How did you propose to your wife?: By the Merced River in Yosemite where we used to go camping each summer. She had no clue it was coming. And about 20 friends showed up that night to camp and celebrate with us.

• Five reasons one should make Ashland, Oregon his/her next vacation destination: 1. There is just epic nature here. The rivers, mountains, we have everything, and it is all so close. Drive five minutes in any direction and you are in jaw-dropping beauty; 2. It is like a little New England town, with a centralized downtown and everyone bikes and walks everywhere and people are friendly and open-minded; 3. The Shakespeare Festival runs from March to October and the plays are amazing; 4. We are in Oregon’s banana belt so almost everything grows here and there are lots of great farm-to-table spots and great farmers markets and the like; 5. Oregon IPAs.

• Who wins in a 12-round mud wrestling match between you and Fred Gandy?: Today, I’d kill him. But Gandy in his prime probably takes me. I think he is from Iowa and so he might have a wrestling background. If so, I’d want no piece of that.

• Three words you overuse in print: However. Coincidentally. Actually.

• Tell us three interesting things about your dog: 1. We rescued Kira when she was about a year old from a guy who, to put it kindly, had a substance-abuse problem. She had never been inside, lived off junk food, didn’t know her name or a single command and smelled like a skunk; 2. She is a red husky and can cover long distances without exerting any effort. I’ve taken her on 20-mile mountain biking rides and that is like walking a block for her; 3. She plays with our chickens. She’ll get down on her front legs and poke at them with her nose or paw at them. She really doesn’t get that they don’t want to interact with her because, well, she looks like a giant wolf.

• My wife wants my mom to stay out of the kitchen when she’s cooking. I’m watching this unfold right now, and it’s awkward. What can I do?: It is in those moments when I say, “I’m taking Kira for a walk,” and I grab a road soda and the dog and go up to a trail above our house. Great excuse to bail on a situation that is not going to end well. So my advice is get a dog and move to Ashland.

Fun with pictures

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So this week’s column for The Athletic concerns Steve Macko, the former Chicago Cubs infielder who died on cancer in 1981, when he was just 27.

The idea for the piece came from a recent evening with my son Emmett. He has all my old baseball cards in a shopping bag beneath his bed, and on occasion he’ll grab a stack, cover the names with a finger and quiz me on one guy after another. It’s more fun than it sounds.

Anyhow, Macko was someone I couldn’t name, and when I dug deeper into his background I discovered the tragedy.

But wait …

What I wanted to write about here is the image heading the article. I basically laid the Macko card atop a whole bunch of others from the collection. If you look closely, you’ll see Pirates outfielder Lee Lacy is in there. So is Carmelo Martinez of the Padres and Doug Sisk during his brief stay with Baltimore.

The main background card, however, is that of a Braves outfielder named Dennis Gargano—and it was deliberately placed. If you do a baseball-reference search, or a retrosheet search, you’ll find absolutely nothing on him. Why? Because Dennis Gargano, Braves outfielder, was my childhood pal and next-door neighbor. That card was issued by the Mahopac Sports Association, and handed to me on the school bus.

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More thoughts and prayers

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I just had a thought.

Then I prayed about that thought.

My thought was that I’d like a Twinkie to appear on my desk. So I literally prayed about it. “Dear God, please put a Twinkie on my desk. Amen.”

Then, this happened!

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Praise God!

•••

I’m just kidding. I did pray, but the Twinkie didn’t appear on my desk. Hell, that’s not even my desk. And you know why my thoughts and prayers weren’t answered? Because thoughts and prayers are never answered. It’s a completely nonsensical human need to think someone hears the voices inside our heads. Therefore, if one prays for a husband, then meets said husband a week later at the Bingo, she can say, “Thank you God!” And if one prays for a husband, then never meets said husband, she can say, “God has a plan for me. It’s not meant to be yet.”

See, that’s the splendid bullshit of “thoughts and prayers.” The three words are stupid easy to say, they carry seemingly good intent, they cost $0.00 to produce and we all robotically nod and drool at their utterance. It’s why politicians turn to “thoughts and prayers” whenever anything bad happens, like, say, a shooting at a Florida school. Actually doing something would take effort and offend voters. “Thoughts and prayers”—simple.

But here’s the thing that always get me: If you really believe in the power of “thoughts and prayers,” shouldn’t the shooting have never occurred? And the shooting before that? And he shooting before that? And the shooting before that? I mean, hell, I’m quite certain thousands (millions?) of Americans pray daily for love and peace. Then—presto—someone shoots up a school, and we need … thoughts and prayers? Why? The people have already been shot and, tragically, killed. How can thoughts and prayers help now? Isn’t it far too late?

Hold on. As I wrote that, I heard a friend’s well-intended voice in my ear. “Thoughts and prayers,” she’d say, “make people feel better.” To which I reply—fuck no. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck no. Somehow religions serves to many as this magical feel better pill. Worried about death? There’s an afterlife! Worried about illness? God heals! It’s all a load of juju, and it’s also preposterously wrongheaded. Sometimes the hurt is what we need most. The inevitability of eternal nothingness is a powerful tool to live life fully. The nervousness over an illness causes one to take stock of life’s flickering nature. And the piercing post-shooting pain  must (fucking must) reinforce the idea that it’s far past the time for action.

That allowing people to acquire these powerful guns makes no sense whatsoever.

That “thoughts and prayers” sounds lovely.

But accomplishes shit.

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Lee Ford-Faherty

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Lee Ford-Faherty is a Paralympian.

She’s not a Special Olympian.

She’s not a Para Olympian.

She’s a Paralympian, which means she’s one of the world’s great archers, as well as a woman who was paralyzed in her left leg as a result of a herniated disc. Did this stop her from belly dancing? No. Performing with fire? No. Shooting arrows? Hell no.

Her story is one of remarkable courage and perseverance. Her take-no-shit attitude resonates. Wanna question her credentials? Duck. Wanna mock her accomplishments? Duck twice.

Lee can be followed on Twitter here, and Facebook here.

Lee Ford-Faherty, you are a champion. And a Quaz.

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Lee, you’re gonna hate this question, which makes it a good Quaz starter: When I was younger we used to play the game, “Which sport could you compete in to make the Olympics?” And even though I was a good runner, I always picked archery. It just seemed like, with a year of nonstop practice, it could be mastered. You sit, you shoot—bingo. So … how dumb was I?

LEE FORD: Fairly dumb! A lot of compound archers try to make it to the Olympics by switching over a couple of months before trials and it’s just not enough time, even for high level pro shooters. It takes 10,000 hours to master something and that doesn’t just happen in one year. A female compound archer switched over last winter for the 2020 Games and I think she has a real shot. She’s being real about the amount of time you have to put in to make it to the top. And she was No. 11 in the US before switching, so that took a lot of courage. The fact that I made the Paralympic Team within three years of deciding to make it to the Games is just unheard of in terms of Olympic archery. And I didn’t know this at the time, but you needed to earn a slot for your country the year before, so it was a battle in 2011, two years after starting archery as a serious athlete, that I won the gold medal at the Para Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. That meant the USA had a slot. We went home for Thanksgiving, and a couple of weeks later I had the first of my now three spine fusions. Four months to the day after that, I got on a plane to go to trials and win that slot for myself. Which I did.

J.P.: On April 11, 2005, a herniated disc left you paralyzed in your left leg. It was the result of an old speed-skating injury. So … I’m riveted. What happened? When did the paralysis hit you? What were your emotions? Fears?

L.F.: Speed skating is not the right sport if you have EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). It’s a joint hypermobility disorder that meant I dislocated very easily. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve dislocated or sprained or severely subluxated my shoulders, my right elbow, my knees, my ankles. I remember doing these horrible exercises for speed skating off the track called “plyometrics” and I remember doing jumping jacks in the speed skating body position. It was horrible and my back went POP! all of a sudden. It resolved itself a few weeks  later when I had a bad fall on the track (I skated inline roller speed skating at the time) and when I got up off the floor, I could finally stand up straight again. So I think that injury followed me until the incident in April, 2005.

I was a very active and popular belly dancer in restaurants and parties in Atlanta, avidly practiced Wing Tzun Kung Fu in the EBMAS system, was a fire performer and was very trim and in shape but I had sciatica! What person in their 30s has sciatica?! Apparently a person with EDS who had a ticking time bomb in their spine just waiting for the perfect storm. Which turned out to be picking up my purse off my futon while a sneeze hit me. I thought I had been shot! But it was the disc rupturing, causing Cauda Equina Syndrome. The only recourse with that is surgery, it was agonizingly painful, but most people recover. I unfortunately develop tons of scar tissue internally from the EDS so I didn’t have the recovery that one would hope for. I was extremely scared for my life and independence with my daughter. I was a single mom then, her dad constantly looked for any excuse to claim I was “unfit” (he has yet to apologize for calling a Paralympian an unfit mother) so I was super afraid I would lose her. At the time, I didn’t know that I only had a 50/50 chance of walking again. The surgeon told my sister this but she kept that information from me for a few years. Which was smart, because my dumb, happy self never thought that I wouldn’t walk. I just assumed I would have to work really, really hard. Which I did. (Are you sensing a theme?)

J.P.: Um, just read an article that included this: “This is a woman who to this day includes performing with fire among her favorite activities” and that you love “belly dancing.” Um … please explain.

L.F.: So before I got hurt, I was very active. I still am, but I have a lot of limitations to work around now. I can only do so much activity before I’m in the wheelchair for the rest of the day. but belly dancing is what saved me. I was in great shape, my core was super strong, so that really helped my recovery. I still dabble in belly dancing but I can still do a lot of my fire performing since that’s mostly upper body stuff. I’ll breathe fire for you one of these days. I’m a Sagittarius in my moon and sun so archery and fire, it can’t be helped! 😉

J.P.: So save for some bow shooting as a kid, you were never into archery into 2008, when you went to an archery club. Why? What got you there? Why archery?

L.F.: My friend Stephanie really disliked the guy I was dating at the time she started taking me to her archery club. We had all done a fire performing routine earlier in the winter and she was not his biggest fan as to how he treated me. I wasn’t either, but I didn’t know what to do about it at the time. She said she wanted to get me out of the house, I had stopped almost all performances and just went to work and came home. I was in pain a lot of the time and even doing bit parts was really hard. So I went to archery, and I had shot a compound bow, instinctive or barebow, and they hand me an Olympic Recurve set-up bow which is very different. I asked them “what do I do with this?” and they said, “Point it that way and shoot.” I fell in love!

There is such grace and beauty with a well-executed Olympic shot, it’s just a marriage of strength and timing and form and mental game! I love it still and I love that I’ll be shooting until the day I die. I teach several archers in their 70s and Miss Jean, who I coached, shot a national record at the Senior Olympics before being afflicted by a stroke. She kept shooting! She passed a while ago but competed and won a gold from her wheelchair the summer before she passed! When I grow up, I’m going to be as tough as Miss Jean! And now I’m teaching Miss Helen, who at 77 is just taking up archery for the first time. She loves it and it’s amazing to see her passion and determination. So I have hope that my body will let me shoot until I leave this world. That’s how I want to go.

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J.P.: I know you’re from Georgia, I know you once competed in roller speed skating. I know you were first moved by the 1976 Olympics. But … how did this happen for you? Soup to nuts? Were you super athletic as a kid? Did you have an ah-ha sports moment? Were your folks jocks?

L.F.: I was always a dancer as a child! Formal ballet schooling, tap, jazz … I ate it up with a spoon. It gifted me with a ton of body awareness, or it at least really sharpened a natural skill. But I was not a sports person! Even with skating, I started lessons with my whole family as a dance skater. I got into speed skating as a bit of a rebellious thing, different from my brother or sister. But I learned so much from being on the speed team that it helped me when it came time to be on an archery team. You really can make it or break it depending on who your teammates are! I’ve had good ones and bad ones but you stick up for them cause they’re your teammates. My parents were not sports people, they were fabulous dancers. Especially my mother. She would dance with her friend Mary, she and her husband Bill were friends with my parents, and man … could those ladies cut a rug! Dance is very athletic, but it’s not jock-ish. The funny thing about my childhood is that I was the opposite of a jock: I was super sickly every winter, I would stop being able to eat. They would bribe me to drink water. It was the Crohn’s Disease but we didn’t know it at the time. There are pictures of me from a Christmas when was about 10. I was literally nothing but skin and bones. You see that picture and wonder how the hell I was even standing up. I saw that picture as an adult and apologized to my mom for putting her through all that worry. But when she passed away, she knew I was happy and healthy, so that helped me a lot during the grieving process.

Oh, and I was a city girl growing up. I grew up in Philadelphia. My dad would just take us to the woods all the time, we love nature. But work was in the city so it was always that struggle to find time to get out of town and breathe country air.

J.P.: I love questions like this, so I’ll ask—you’re ready to fire. What, specifically, is going through your mind? I mean this very literally. Your eyes are looking ahead. What’s the brain doing?

L.F.: My brain is literally doing nothing. I don’t aim, unless I have to aim off in the wind. The only thought in my head, so that I only have that one thought and nothing else, is “Back tension, LAN 2. back tension, LAN 2.” LAN 2 is a term we use to describe the middle of the back of your arm that is holding the string. It continues an angular movement that starts with the draw. But I don’t think about it, or anything else if I can help it. I can’t have a conversation while I’m shooting unless it’s between shots. And do you have any idea how hard it is to empty your mind? It’s really hard, but focusing on just one thought is what really helps me. Back tension, LAN 2.

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J.P.: Greatest moment of your sports career? Lowest?

L.F.: Greatest was winning the gold in Guadalajara! It actually was a shock. I was really in the zone but thought I was shooting like hell. I thought the scoreboard was wrong! I finished an end and put my bow down and told the coach that they needed to fix the board, it had me in first place before we started that last end. She said “Smile and wave, Lee, you just won!” I now know what it means to be flabbergasted.

Lowest moment was in Toronto at the 2015 Para Pan Am Games. I was ready to compete, felt like I could defend my title, when the mix up on my classification form meant that they wanted to reclassify me. It was horrible! I go through classification and the guy who was in charge tells me I should be on the Olympic team, not the Paralympic team. You’re disabled but not disabled enough. What the ever living f___? To be sent home, not being able to support my teammates, to not being able to compete, was a really shitty deal. I get that there are countries who game the classification system, but I don’t. My disability is real and it interferes with my ability to do archery and be competitive with able-bodied athletes. Shooting sitting down may be safer and better for my spine but it’s a lot harder to shoot when it comes to archery! But somehow sitting down levels the playing field and I have to compete able bodied? It makes no sense and World Archery and the IPC need to be a little bit more real when it comes to Para athletes. They’ve destroyed a lot of careers, including mine.

J.P.: Your bio says you love going to Burning Man. I’ve been toying with the idea—but I’m 45 and cruddy. Sell me. Why should I go? What do you love about it?

L.F.: Burning Man or even one of the regional events, I can’t say enough how amazing it is! Figuring out the logistics (no pay to play camp for me!), from getting there, getting all your stuff there, what to pack, what to wear! It’s dizzying in scope, especially when you go as a group with friends, or just meet people there. I camp with The Philadelphia Experiment, I found them the first year I went and they took me in as a displaced Philly girl and we made art and magic and music! Burning Man is held in one of the harshest environments on the planet and 60,000 of your closest friends just don’t survive the playa, they don’t just thrive on the playa, they party! There are amazing classes to take, art to see, music for dance and hooping and fire and chilling. I recommend two things for every human: Go to the Olympics/Paralympics and go to Burning Man. People bring their families, they have the Kids Village, if a child goes missing the entire Black Rock City shuts down and every person on the playa looks for that child. Burners aren’t just friends, they’re family. Go!

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J.P.: I hate to sound like a dick, but I don’t think most Americans view the Paralympics with the same heft of the Olympics. And I wonder—do you? Should we? Do you think people fully understand the Paralympics? What are folks missing?

L.F.: No, you don’t sound like a dick, it’s true. Americans for the most part don’t know what the Paralympics is until they meet a Paralympian. And becoming a Paralympian isn’t easy. It’s just as hard as the Olympics, and we’re starting from having to overcome a disability first, then we work on training and competing. I think Americans really need treat Paralympians with the same respect and honor, and officially we get that, but the average Joe on the street doesn’t know about us or confuses us with the Special Olympics. That gets annoying. No, I don’t get a medal for just showing up, I have to work my butt off and compete at the highest international level. When people introduce me as an Olympian or a Para Olympian, I say no, I’m a Paralympian, we’re better. The tattoos on my arm are about educating everyone who sees it about the Paralympics. They know the rings, but what are those swoosh things? Those are the Agitos (Ah-gee-tos) which symbolize the Paralympic Games. They are Latin shorthand for “I move” so the three Agitos say, “I move, I move, I move” and the Paralympics are “Spirit in Motion”! And then people get it about the Paralympics.

The problem is that we don’t get the TV coverage that the Olympians get. You want stories of guts and perseverance, just pull the first Paralympian you see and ask them what they overcome to be able to compete. Olympians haave nothing on us in terms of inspirational back stories. But I think networks think people will be uncomfortable watching physically disabled people compete. They’re dead wrong. Para sport can show how capable we really are! Channel 4 in Britain had the Paralympics on 24/7 just like the Olympics and it totally changed the way that the English view disabled people. Johnny Peacock is a huge star there now! (track and field) If we could get the same out of NBC then I think you would see some real interest and the viewing audience would love it. Watching wheelchair rugby, aka Murderball, is a blast! I didn’t miss a match by USA in London, because most of their games were when I wasn’t competing. It’s non-stop action and those guys are all quads in some way! They’re insane! It’s tons of fun to watch and wheelchair rugby is the only team that travels with its own welder to fix chairs and wheels. Fact!

So it’s not really America’s fault that they’re missing out, it’s the TV coverage we get. NBC dropped the ball on us over and over again. There’s an Olympic Channel but I don’t even get basic cable so I haven’t seen it. Can’t speak as to how the coverage is. I know some World Archery World Cup events have been on there, though.

J.P.: On December 14, 2011, you had your spine fused because of herniation and scar tissue around the nerve root as it exited the spinal cord. Throughout my life I’ve heard, “You never want your spine fused” at least 10,000 times. What did spinal fusion feel like? What was the impact?

L.F.: December 14, 2011 was just my first fusion. December 17, 2013 was the second fusion, also low back and December 23, 2015 was my neck from C4-C6.

Yeah, I’ve heard that saying and the caveat is that you don’t want your spine fused until you want it fused. I have a lot more stability now and I know that I’m not going to damage those areas of my spinal cord anymore. After the first one, until all the scar tissue grew back, it was great. I hurt like hell and my nerve damage was just insane at first, but after the healing process really had some time, I felt better. Then the scar tissue grew back. Turns out I’m internally keloid. After the second fusion I started having these weird spasms that would make my legs stop working and I would go down. Just straight to the floor. Someone can brush up against me, trigger a spasm, and I fall. It’s not as bad anymore but still happens on a regular basis. The neck fusion was the worst! I had to stop archery for the longest time after that one, I just couldn’t pick up my bow! Plus I can’t turn my head anymore, hard tissue fusion will do that, so it changed my whole sight picture when I shoot, when I aim my sight. But, hey, I shoot able bodied now! (sarcasm) I needed the surgeries, my spinal cord was compromised so they had to be done. I look at it this way, if it extends the number of steps I’ll be able to take before I have to use my wheelchair full time, then I’m all for it. I have EDS so someday I may need a chair full time but I’ll fight it tooth and nail. (FYI: no one is “wheelchair bound” – we’re not tied into it in some weird bondage thing. We are also not “confined” to a wheelchair. Being a wheelchair user isn’t confining, actually using my chair helps me go to places and do things that I normally wouldn’t be able to do. So we’re wheelchair users, doesn’t matter if full time or part time.)

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LEE FORD-FAHERTY:

• Ford is such a simple, lovely last name. Then, when you married, you got Faherty. Which seems like Flaherty. Did this screw your world up in many ways?: Not really until it became time to change my passport and my entry name was changed with World Archery and the rest of the world. It was actually the first compromise of my marriage that I would be Ford-Faherty, I wanted to change to Faherty and John insisted that I stay Ford, said it was my athlete name, like a stage name and I should keep it. Its Ford on my uniform shirts, and Ford-Faherty everywhere else. I go by Lee cause no one can pronounce my Irish first name down South so I go and get an even moreIrish name like Faherty! We’ve both had our DNA done and Galway, Ireland is our genetic community so I am proud of Ford, and want to visit Faherty’s Pub in Galway.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ray Charles, boba, Jennifer Hudson, Brent Barry, Samsung TVs, Jeff Fabry, Firefox, “Return of the Jedi,” Dwight Howard, electric eels: Well I have to say that people always come first before things so Ray Charles, Jeff Fabry, Boba, Dwight Howard (ATL!), Jennifer Hudson, Brent Barry (looks like an ex, only shorter) Jedi, Samsung, electric eels. Eels freak me out, I tend to not take off my silver bracelet when I’m scuba diving so I get paranoid one is going to get me!

• Tell me three things about your daughter:1: Shelby is named after Steel Magnolias, since the movie reminds me of my diabetic mom, but she would return from the grave and haunt me if I named her granddaughter “Doris”. 2: She is great with animals and loves cows. Like actual cows. She’s debating to either be a food animal vet or a meat scientist. I’m still not sure what that is. 3: She’s the smartest person I know. She was able to re-teach me trigonometry in a way that I actually understood and could do.

• Who wins in a thumb fight between you and Barbra Streisand?: Me. I have burly hands from archery and I’m freakishly flexible. I could take on The Rock.

• How did your husband propose?: Over the phone. We were living long distance but he wanted to take care of me and Shelby. With the whole custody thing …

• Five reasons one should make Perry, Georgia his/her next vacation destination: 1: We have the Ag Center, as we call it, or as everyone knows it the Georgia National Fairgrounds. I describe it as the big thing on the side of Interstate 75 when you’re driving from Atlanta to Florida. Rodeos, SCA events, 2: The Georgia National Fair (seriously, even school is closed that week), 3: our downtown is historic with cute shopping. 4: We’re central to the state so there’s a lot to do in any general direction 5: we have an archery club with ridiculously low instruction fees and bow rental and you get to shoot archery with a Paralympian 😉

• You’re a public speaker. I will pay you $5 to work “Mr. T,” “eat the moth” and “fuck the world, I’m blingin’” into your next talk. You game?: I’m totally down. You haven’t heard my adult version of my motivational speech where I quote Betty White and tell them to “V up!”

• What do your husband’s shoes smell like?: My husband has absolutely no smell at all. It’s weird.

• Your dog Leo is adorable. What’s the worst thing he’s done?: He’s a service dog who is retired, he went deaf. The worst thing he’s done is poop on the carpet in the hallway cause he had to stay home along too long.

• Celine Dion calls. She’ll pay you $200 million to spend the next 300 days as her private archery teacher. The only conditions are you have to shave your hair, officially change your name to “Celine Dion Ford II” and cover yourself in honey and dead crickets every morning on the job. You in?: I don’t have a good head to shave my hair off. I’d likely shoot her five days in and I don’t think I could claim it was an accident. At my level in the sport of archery, if I shot you, it’s on purpose.

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