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August 9, 2012

DeFord's memoir is engrossing


— Frank Deford is probably the most eloquent American sportswriter today. His prose has a richness and melodic tone that sets him apart from most of his colleagues. He also has the ability to write about any subject with the same passion he cares about sports.

I’ve read several of his novels as well as the gut-wrenching biography of his daughter Alex who died of Cystic Fibrosis at the age of 8. All his books, fiction and non-fiction alike, are the type that you can’t put down. His fans will be happy to know that he just published his memoirs, “Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter.” It is part biography, part history, part opinion, part tribute, part comedy, and totally engrossing.

Deford grew up in Baltimore, which most sports fans only know as the city where Babe Ruth was born, Cal Ripken set the all-time record for consecutive games played, the Preakness is run and the beloved Colts abandoned in the middle of the night. Fortunately, Deford gives a more whimsical, if abbreviated, description of the city. It certainly has more appeal and history than just being a way-station between New York City and Washington, D.C.

His professional career has spanned six decades and dozens of sports (including the exotic). He has spent most of his career with Sports Illustrated, but has dabbled in radio and television as well. His only real failure came in 1989 when he accepted a position as editor of The National, an all sports daily newspaper. It lasted less than two years and lost $150 million (no wonder print media is dying!).

Deford came of age at an ideal time (circa 1960), fusing the connection between the old-time sportswriters and those of the digital age. The old-timers were the ones who sat with their manual typewriters in the press box smoking cigarettes, called in their stories to meet deadline and then matriculated to the nearest hangout (i.e., bar) to shoot the breeze with colleagues.

Deford talks about many of these legends including Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, and Dick Young. Of course, if you are a new age fan you may not have heard of them, or the most legendary of all, Grantland Rice. You will here. The nice thing is that Deford doesn’t simply just deify these “immortals.” He shows they may have been legendary but they were human as well.

When it came to immortal athletes the author got to know many of them from the past 50 years. In fact, he is credited with “discovering” basketball great U.S. Senator Bill Bradley and ice hockey superstar Bobby Orr. He admits he was simply fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.

His chapters on tennis great Arthur Ashe and former odds-maker and regular on CBS’s NFL Today, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder make the book a treasure in themselves. His discussion of Ashe (who died from AIDS due to a blood transfusion at the age of 49) is the most beautiful tribute to the tennis star I have ever read. His chapter on Jimmy the Greek humanizes a man whose career ended after an innocent, but foolish comment about African-American athletes.

Not all his commentary is peaches and cream. He has strong opinions on a variety of subjects and people. He thinks Pete Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame, the NCAA is corrupt, college football and basketball players should be paid, soccer is the most boring sport around, and Rodney Dangerfield is the biggest jerk known to mankind.

If you’re wondering how Rodney Dangerfield is connected to a sports memoir you just have to be old enough to remember the Miller Lite Beer ads from the 1970s and 80s. Miller Lite Beer ran a very successful ad campaign featuring ex-athletes from every sport imaginable (and then some). The commercials featured arguments about whether “tastes great” or “less filling” made the beer more appealing.

Deford and Dangerfield were the rare non-athletes featured (Dangerfield because of “Caddyshack”). Dangerfield made a very bad impression on Deford, who portrays him as a pompous ass. It’s unfortunate because Dangerfield’s movies, his “I don’t get no respect” shtick, and his autobiography portray him as a likable guy. That image is shattered after Deford is through with him.

As for soccer, I can only assume that Deford saw too many 0-0 matches and that his son didn’t play the sport in high school. I even felt the same way about soccer after watching a 1984 Olympic matchup live between Brazil and West Germany that probably set the sport back 50 years.

But a few seasons of watching Cooperstown pull out dramatic wins in sudden death overtime cured that attitude. Besides, what could have been more dramatic than Team USA’s Langdon Dovovan’s last-second goal to beat Algeria in the 2010 World Cup?

Who cares though? Deford’s controversial opinions just add some spice to his book. He has had a remarkable life, a remarkable career, and has known some remarkable athletes.

His memoir is a keeper for any sports fan, lover of extraordinary writing, and native of Baltimore.