Friday, October 9, 2009

Selective Reading – Garfinkel, Lefty and Myself

Every morning when I wake up I take a look at the comments posted from the previous day's blog. They usually range from funny to smart to inquisitive to--occasionally--correcting a mistake I've made. That always frustrates me. I don't like making mistakes. There are also occasions where someone is upset with what I've written (a surprisingly low percentage actually) and, often as not, those comments come from people who think I should keep politics out of what is most often a sports blog.

On those mornings I agree to disagree, sip my coffee (Thank God I have a new coffeemaker and thanks for the concern and understanding from some of yesterday's posters and e-mailers) and move on.

On occasion though, there's a note that makes me shake my head because it reminds me of how selective we can all be when we read. There was an example of that this morning in the post from Sarah, who I'm going to guess is a Twins fan. Sarah, it seems, was upset with my criticism of Major League Baseball and home plate umpire Randy Marsh for not admitting Marsh missed a call in the top of the 12th inning of the Twins-Tigers game Tuesday night when a bases loaded pitch grazed the uniform of the Tigers Brandon Inge.

This is not to pick on Sarah, who is simply standing up for her team. But what she read in the blog was quite different from what I wrote. More important though what she read was me saying the Tigers got robbed. In fact I made the point that there was NO guarantee the Tigers would win if Marsh had gotten the call right especially with Tigers closer Fernando Rodney clearly exhausted in the bottom of the 12th. She also seemed to think I was somehow demeaning the Twins victory. I think most people understood I was as thrilled for the Twins as I was disappointed for the Tigers. That was the beauty of the game. Both teams were deserving.

The larger point is this: people selectively read all the time. I'm as guilty as anyone. I've been remarkably lucky throughout my career to get very good book reviews. I would guess somewhere around 90 percent have ranged from good to great and, even in the 10 percent that weren't there were still some nice things said in almost every case. And yet, I guarantee I remember the 10 percent--and even the mild criticisms in some of the 90 percent--far more than the praise.

When "A Season on the Brink," came out The New York Times book review completely ignored it. One of the nasty little secrets about publishing is that The Times, which wields tremendous power because of its bestseller list, is about as blatantly political as any entity on earth. I know I come at this from a biased position but it is almost impossible for anyone with a Washington Post connection to get a fair shake from The Times and there are very few books written by Times-connected people that don't (A) get full reviews and (B) get positive full reviews. There are exceptions on both sides--I've even got a couple of decent reviews--but they are few and far between

Anyway...After 'Season on the Brink," had been No. 1 on The Times list for 14 weeks they finally got around to reviewing it. The review as five paragraphs long and very complimentary except for a weird final sentence which, 22 years later I still remember almost word-for-word: "That's great reporting (referring to something in the book) and yet the man still somehow eludes us."

Huh? What the hell did that mean? Fast forward five years. I'm at the Major League Baseball winter meetings and a guy walks up and introduces himself. "I thought I should introduce myself because I reviewed 'Season on the Brink,' for The New York Times," he said. (To this day I can't tell you his name). Clearly he expected me to thank him for the good review--which I probably should have. But I reacted instinctively: "What the hell does 'the man still eludes us?' mean," I said. As soon as I said it I felt bad--I had done to him what people often did to me--pick out one line and forget everything nice that had been written. He was nice about it, then I was nice about it and everything was fine after that.

Of course sometimes reviewers can be infuriating because they don't READ what you've written. When 'A Good Walk Spoiled,' came out in 1995 the reviews were overwhelmingly good. One guy, however, was incensed because--he wrote--"Feinstein has flat out stolen a line from Mark Twain and claimed it as his own for a title." The opening sentence of the introduction to the book reads as follows: "It was Mark Twain who said, 'Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled.'

A few years later one of the Times more obnoxious regular reviewers ripped me in her review of, "The Last Amateurs," for "ignoring," players like Tim Duncan who went to big time schools and passed on taking the NBA money early to get their degrees. Again, in the introduction, I wrote about Duncan being one of the exceptions that proved the rule and how much I had enjoyed getting to know him while writing, "A March to Madness," during his SENIOR year.

See what I mean about remembering every slight? (that would be me).

I still smile when people describe me as the guy who "excoriated," Bob Knight. (Read the book, it is anything but an excoriation). The fact is we all do it all the time. You and I can read the same story and come to completely different conclusions about it. I have no doubt there is a Tigers fan out there who thinks I went too easy on Marsh for missing the call in the 12th. It makes the world go round.

My favorite story about this sort of thing goes back to 1984. I had traveled the summer basketball circuit which was being taken over by the shoe companies at the time and had written a lengthy, glowing story about The Five Star Camp, which was the original basketball camp. Unlike the meat market shoe company camps, Howard Garfinkel, the camp's founder and director, still ran a camp that was about teaching and having fun and learning the fundamentals of the sport. I went on at length about all the traditions of the camp: no numbers on the players uniforms; Garf shooting free throws to cheers and boos every day; all the clinician/coaches who came in to speak; the outdoor games at night under the trees at Robert Morris University; the bad food; station 13 where everyone had to go every day for instruction.

It was, in essence, a 100 inch infomercial for Five Star.

The day it ran my phone rang. It was Garfinkel. "I saw the piece today," he said. I waited for the thank you. "What do you mean lousy food?!"

Actually there is one story better than that and it involves--surprise--Lefty Driesell. When I first started covering Lefty and Maryland he frequently complained to me about The Post's coverage of the program, specifically citing Ken Denlinger, who was then--along with Dave Kindred--one of the papers two very good sports columnists. (Neither one liked hockey very much. In fact, Kenny walked into the newsroom one winter morning and announced, "I have built an insurmountable 1-0 lead on Kindred this season in hockey columns." Turned out he was right).

Lefty always referred to Kenny as "your buddy Denklinker," because he knew how much I looked up to Ken. He told me repeatedly that he had never forgiven, "your buddy," because when he first arrived in town Ken had written a story about him that was full of "unanimous quotes," from his Davidson players saying he couldn't coach very well.

"I still have it in my desk," Lefty said. (This was 11 years later). "He tried to run me out of town before I even got to town."

One day I was in Lefty's office and asked to see the infamous piece. "Got it right here," Lefty said.

He pulled open a drawer in his desk and pulled out a massive file marked, "negative publicity."

"It's in there," he said.
I began working my way through the file. Finally I found a story and, sure enough, it was full of "unanimous," quotes from Davidson players insisting that Lefty didn't know what he was doing at the end of a close game. I began reading the story to Lefty--who was across the room from me.

"THAT'S IT," Lefty screamed. "Look at that--you buddy Denklinker runnin' me out a town on a rail. All unanimous quotes. No one on the record."

He was absolutely right. "Yup, you're right Lefty," I said. "There's just one thing."

"What's that."

"This story appeared in The Washington Star. It was written by Steve Hershey."

"Oh really?" Lefty said. He stalked across the room, grabbed the story from my hand and looked at the byline.

"Wow," he said. "Guess I owe Denklinker an apology."

Of course I should have known all along Ken didn't write the story. He was never really into 'unanimous,' quotes.


Tim- said...

Hey, the great ones always have 'selective' reading and hearing. Just ask Jordan!

Matt said...

Garfinkel and his camp have many faults to go with some of the positives you mention . I have witnessed some of his many vulgar ,verbal attacks on innocent campers who had committed the sin of attending a rival camp . He has even , verbally and vulgarly, attacked in public a camper who was the son of a coach who worked the camp for a few years.

Sarah said...

Rebuttal? I was strangely thrilled to be singled out for your blog (although I am not sure it was in the nice not picking on me way you say) since I have long admired you as a writer and commentator, listened to your views and read your books (recently The Punch, which was very good). That being said, where in your post yesterday did you say you were thrilled about the Twins? You said you saw "one thing that was disturbing" about the game, not "I am thrilled the Twins won, they deserved it". I realize the point you were making was that umps (and refs in general) need to be made accountable in the face of undeniable evidence, and they need to admit it. I get it.
Secondly, I was not mad. I was just sayin'. Jeez, AnonymousSaid spouts all sorts of opinions and he's not a selective reader.
And just so you know, I am a Twins fan because I live in MN and they are a scrappy team with a lot of heart, but my loyalties are actually with Seattle, and that rarely gets me into the playoffs.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the lecture on how to read properly, you fat, smelly, preening BOOB.