To me, Peter Gammons is the ultimate name in baseball credibility. I’ve never read a single column he wrote in The Boston Globe, don’t regularly search out his pieces on ESPN.com and only hear from him on the rare occasions that I watch SportsCenter when he happens to be on. But the reverential tones with which other sportswriters refer to Gammons give him a mythic quality; he’s the guy everybody in the business “grew up reading.” If baseball were a religion, Babe Ruth were its deity and Fenway Park were its church, Gammons would be the archbishop.
Who wields such a mighty pen now as Gammons did in his prime? I can’t think of a single baseball, basketball or football writer who has earned a national audience for his or her columns. Actually, I can’t think of a single baseball, basketball or football writer at all, save the self-parodying opinion-machines ESPN throws on as the male counterpoint to Oprah. There’s only one sports guy whose writing I’ve ever had a conversation about.
Originally knighted “The Boston Sports Guy,” on the Digital City Boston website, Bill Simmons is the kind of celebrity made possible by the Internet. A glorified blogger, he eventually joined ESPN.com on the condition that he drop the “Boston” from his nickname—a superficial move, considering the amount of Boston sports news slopped into his readers’ bowls. Under the general umbrella of their site’s humor section, Simmons’ popularity has prompted the Worldwide Leader to feature his work with a permanent spot on the homepage.
What could he be saying that sets him so far apart from all of the other sports journalism personalities? His columns center on the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots—teams most of us just don’t care enough about to read that much. His shtick is repetitive, and anyone who’s glanced through his site more than a few times knows exactly whom he loves (Stern, former NBA player Charles Oakley), and whom he hates (Knicks’ GM Isaiah Thomas, Celtics’ coach Doc Rivers [father of Hoya player Jeremiah]). He makes a solid effort to include readers, often taking up an entire(ly too long) column to answer their e-mails, but is not afraid to overuse phrases like “poop sandwich” when answering them on what he condescendingly believes is their level. But people listen: Thomas has even threatened him should they ever meet on the street. And my middle-school self once sent an e-mail asking to be his apprentice (“The world isn’t ready” was his one-line reply).
Simmons doesn’t write about sports. His columns are a buffet of pop culture, autobiography and occasional references to sports he saw on TV. One of his most popular formats is the “running diary” of events he tuned into with his friends: the NBA draft, the first day of March Madness, anything that goes longer than a couple of hours. His talents don’t exactly expand beyond these columns, either; his annoying voice would never translate to radio, and he freezes up like a snowman when he’s on the other side of the small screen.
What people want from this guy isn’t great sports analysis, but a friend.
If this is what we’re growing up on, are we going to suffer through twenty copycats for the next twenty years, one for every major sports market?
And one day, will it be novel when someone offers some actual analysis?